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Fox Sports' David Hill superimposes his will on TV

FACETIME

Responsible for a number of graphic innovations, the longtime CEO isn't afraid to take a risk.

March 25, 2010|By Joe Flint

Fox Sports Chief Executive David Hill has a photograph on his wall of the network's executives at the negotiating table in 2003 making a failed bid for the broadcast rights to the 2010 and 2012 Olympics.

"It's the only time I've kept anything where I've lost," he says, adding that he even framed the rejection letter from the International Olympic Committee.

In that case, Hill may have won by losing. Although NBC Universal's coverage of the 2010 Winter Games was a ratings success, the network lost more than $200 million.

That won't stop Hill from making a bid on the 2014 and 2016 Games. Buying any big sports event is scary, he says, but "you have to be optimistic."

Hill, an executive who combines a salesman's bonhomous air with an encyclopedic knowledge of television -- he studs conversations with references to industry legends David Sarnoff and Philo Farnsworth -- has run News Corp.'s Fox Sports for almost 18 years.

He's been an innovator in on-screen graphics. When you turn on a football game and see the score and time remaining superimposed against the action and the yellow line indicating the first down marker, you can thank Hill. Now he is preparing to present this year's Major League Baseball All-Star game in 3-D.

Besides Fox Sports, Hill oversees Fox's 19 regional sports channels, the cable networks Speed and Fuel and the Big Ten Network, a joint-venture between Fox and the NCAA.

Hill took time to talk sports, rising rights fees, sports, the Internet, sports, the next Super Bowl halftime show and sports. The following is an edited transcript:

How important are sports to the future of broadcast television?

In television, which is an increasingly shaky swamp, the only guarantee of huge audiences are the events.

Sports rights fees just keeping going up and up. At what point do you say no?

I'll never forget in 1978 there was a conference and a CBS executive said sports rights have gone as high as they are ever going. That's right up there with the president of the Royal Institute of Science who said in 1781 that everything that is going to be discovered has been discovered.

Where are sporting rights going to go? I can't see them coming down any time soon.

Yet the size of the TV audience for sports events isn't keeping pace with escalating fees.

Exactly right. That's why it is such a wonderful gamble . . . well I don't know if I'd use the word "wonderful." You have to believe that when you buy the rights to a sport that you can increase the ratings. Occasionally things go horribly wrong.

How aggressively will Fox go after the 2014 and 2016 Olympics?

I don't know. It's one of those things that you hope keeps getting pushed closer to the event and then you can get a better sense of where the economy is going to be.

The difficulty and the challenge and the excitement is that the Olympics we'll be bidding on are in Sochi, Russia, and Rio de Janeiro. Both areas are unknown and you can assume will give you production difficulties. On the other hand, they're both exotic locations that I think people are going to watch.

Is there a sports event that Fox wants but doesn't have?

I think the NBA is starting to make a resurgence. I'm a little interested in golf. Not because of the Tiger [Woods] thing. There are a lot of young hot players coming through now, which is going to give it a lift.

Fox is doing baseball's All-Star game in 3-D. Is that a gimmick?

There are a number of sports that 3-D is going to absolutely revitalize. It will be hugely beneficial to auto sports. I think 3-D will give boxing a shot of oxygen.

You've always done snazzy things with on-screen graphics. What's the best, and worst, of those ideas?

The best was the score and the time. That came when I was watching an English football game and after 30 minutes I had no idea of the score or how long the game had been on.

The worst was not quitting immediately and copyrighting it and charging television companies around the world a dollar a minute to rent it.

Fox has the Super Bowl next year. Can we have a halftime act under the age of 60?

Oh, please, God, yes. If I saw [Who guitarist] Pete Townshend's belly again I was going to throw up. In his younger days it might have been rippling muscle, but now it's like mine -- rippling fat. From the conversations I've had with the NFL, we won't need oxygen.

joe.flint@latimes.com

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