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Football Or Nfl 90210?

"Same game, new attitude" has been Fox's mantra ever since Rupert Murdoch outbid CBS in December for TV rights to the NFL's premier conference, the NFC. Besides dissing CBS, owner of the Sunday-afternoon franchise for the last 38 years, Fox's gonzo marketing campaign promised to revive the sport itself. The network would turn the NFL into the in-your-face NBA, breed a new generation of kids into armchair Troy Aikmans and make football cool again. Football purists wisecracked about Bart Simpson doing play-by-play. Then Fox hired John Madden, Pat Summerall, Terry Bradshaw and most of the same middle-aged white guys from the CBS broadcast. The reality of the Sept. 4 season opener between the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers may well be same game, old attitude.

Three preseason games warmed up Fox's new team. So far, the only discernible difference in coverage has been technical. More superslo-mo. More cameras and mikes on the field so viewers can feel those bone-crunching hits in Stereo Surround. An annoying score and time clock in the upper left corner of the screen. The Cowboys-Steelers game will kick off Fox's longer, glitzier pregame show. Based in Los Angeles, the 60-minute program's elaborate set includes an AstroTurfed rec room for demonstrating plays and a "sky box" where, starting next month, "feature reporter" Lonnie Lardner will fawn over her celebrity guests. "Like the front row at the Lakers game," gushes a Fox publicist. No, more like "Entertainment Tonight." Rounding out the cast are CBS vet James Brown, former defensive end Howie Long -- the youngster at 34 -- and ex-Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson, whose nonparticipation in preseason media schmoozing has already caused friction with Bradshaw.

Going into its 75th season, the NFL is being dismissed as the "No Fun League." New rule changes aside, critics complain that football has become a coach's game, a kicker's game, anything but a fan's game. Fox told the NFL that 40 percent of young viewers (18 to 49) had abandoned the CBS broadcast and only Fox could bring them back. "They have the top kids' network," says NFL programming vice president Val Pinchbeck. "We're anxious to have young viewers." Besides promoting football year-round, Fox will cross-promote with its youth-culture sitcoms and soaps. So don't be surprised when the charismatic Long shows up on the season premiere of "Beverly Hills, 90210."

"The game suffers from a lack of identity and visibility," says Steve Miller, head of sports marketing at Nike. He urges the NFL to "dimensionalize" players, a la Michael Jordan. To that end, Fox will run a stylized series of segments called "Under the Helmet," designed to sell the players as "personalities," says Tracy Dolgin, the network's head of sports marketing. In one spot, Green Bay defensive end Reggie White, an ordained minister, sings "Amazing Grace." Nike has already come up with a series of wacky ads with Den-nis Hopper as a football ref obsessed with certain players. Says Miller: "If you're gonna bring kids back into the fold, it's gonna have to be a little rock and roll."

Not every hard-core gridiron fan wants to be rocked. When a Fox research executive went on the Internet to solicit reactions to the preseason games, Chris Mottola, a 36-year-old political consultant in Philadelphia, rated the high-tech camera work "terrific" but said the promos "try too hard to be hip." Even Madden sounds uncomfortable with the hypey "Under the Helmet" segments. "More and more players are taking their helmets off after a big play already," he says gruffly. "It's like showing off a little." Bradshaw, a natural-born ham, is more tolerant of the showbiz: "Everything is all tied in with TV and TV ratings. That's where the money is."

Murdoch is betting ratings can be bought. On top of the $1.58 billion he paid for four years of the NFC, he'll shell out an additional $250 million in start-up costs ($30 million for Madden alone). Advertisers are spending $100 million less on advertising than last year. But, thanks to football, ads in Fox's entertainment division are up. So is the value of stations owned by the network. Fox is launching most of its new fall shows after Sunday's game and, down the road, possibly a news mag to go up against "60 Minutes." Fox may bring young viewers to football, but football also brings much-needed older viewers to Fox. Going global is also part of the plan. In March, Murdoch and the NFL became partners in a new World League starting next year in Europe. Fox has also acquired the worldwide distribution rights to NFL films. His next big-league bids could be for baseball, hockey or the Olympics -- three more reasons not to screw up football. Promises Fox's Dolgin: "You will not see Bart Simpson doing game coverage." Bummer, man.

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