Soon after Fox Sports won the contract to broadcast NASCAR races, a troop of the network's executives flew to Atlanta for a week of events.
As they talked strategy in the bleachers, Fox Sports Chairman and Chief Executive David Hill snuck away from the stands, through a secure area and onto the grassy infield. When security officers spotted him, he was lying flat on his stomach in the grass near one of Atlanta Motor Speedway's hairpin turns with a camcorder, scouting camera angles. Moments after he was grabbed by guards, three cars collided and slammed into the area where Hill had been filming.
"A few minutes later and the next day's headlines would have been, 'Fox Sports exec killed surveying NASCAR,'" said Dick Glover, NASCAR's vice president of broadcasting. "But that's David, he's always out there trying to figure out what's the best way to bring these events to people at home."
The story typifies Hill's now-legendary attention to even the smallest of details. In the 11 years since News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch plucked him from British Sky Broadcasting Group PLC to start Fox Sports, Hill has built the division into a powerhouse.
Today Fox dominates sports coverage through its network and regional cable channels so much so that Hill placed first in the Business Journal's list of 25 most powerful sports executives in Southern California, as compiled by the consulting firm Sports Business Group.
And now it's onto the satellite television business.
Last month, Murdoch chose the Australian-born Hill to head a new entertainment division at DirecTV Group Inc., which is majority-owned by News Corp. The selection is being watched closely, given Hill's experience in launching sports satellite services and Murdoch's interest in using DirecTV as a launching pad for Fox programming.
Hill will retain his title of Fox Sports chairman, but spend his time at DirecTV's El Segundo headquarters, overseeing programming, marketing and promotion, and technology.
"It's quite ironic that you should be interviewing me about a sports position when I'm about to, for all intents and purposes, vacate it," said Hill, who was ranked second on the list last year.
In a recent interview, Hill did not detail his plans for DirecTV, but acknowledged that sports will play an important role. Last week he was in London visiting old friends at BSkyB, also majority-owned by News Corp., to find out what has worked and what hasn't.
"We were chatting yesterday about how the broadcasting landscape has changed," said Vic Wakeling, managing director of Sky Sports, a unit of BSkyB. "You can sit and watch a TV series any time you like now, catch up on the news any time you like, but what will continue to draw large audiences is live sports."
BSkyB is more technologically advanced than DirecTV, with viewers able to choose the camera angle they prefer, pick between commentators they want to hear and gamble on games. Hill hinted that many of the interactive features found on BSkyB could find their way to the United States (although gambling would be unlikely).
Jimmy Schaeffler, senior multichannel TV analyst with the Carmel Group, said Hill inspires confidence among investors. He expects DirecTV to introduce its first interactive TV package this summer, when it unveils plans for a new Sunday NFL Ticket, a special package of football games from across the country.
"They are going to bring a lot of what they have learned in the United Kingdom, especially with BSkyB, to DirecTV's interactive unit," Schaeffler said. "It's our position that DirecTV is going to blow a lot of people away when they see the new layers of Sunday NFL Ticket."
DirecTV already has introduced a home media center that combines TiVo-like recording capabilities with high-definition programming, and allows customers to access content throughout their homes not just on the TV set where the satellite box happens to be located.
"The opportunities of what we can do with DirecTV are so terribly exciting," Hill said. "There's almost a chance, I think, of creating a new form of television, which is what I'll be trying to do. Whether or not that works is another thing."
He'll be kept busy trying to invigorate the nearly 14 million-subscriber DirecTV service, which is in a pitched battle for customers with cable providers and satellite rival Dish Network. For now, cable seems to have the upper hand because it is bundling television, broadband Internet and telephone service in ways that satellite providers can't.
"Customer additions aren't yet hitting the bottom line," said Value Line analyst Matthew Albrecht, noting that despite adding 1.7 million net subscribers in 2004 the company lost $235.3 million largely because of higher costs associated with customers wanting more sophisticated set-top boxes.
Beyond cable, DirecTV has other competitors: phone companies. SBC Communications Inc. plans to roll out television service of its own, possibly by year's end. SBC's partner, Internet portal Yahoo Inc., is moving its entertainment division to Santa Monica from Silicon Valley so it can cut faster deals with television and film studios.
To Hill, who seems to thrive on risk, competition is all part of the fun, and it only becomes more interesting as the stakes get higher.
"It's like poker," Hill said in his corner office on the Fox 20th Century studio lot. "Are you going to play for 3 cents or are you going to play for $300? If you're playing for 3 cents it doesn't really count if you lose a hand, but if you're playing for $300 a chip, it really does.
"The difference here is we're playing with $3 million or even $3 billion chips."
Before being hired by Murdoch to launch Sky Television in 1988, Hill had an accomplished career at newspapers and television stations in Australia.
At 17, he started as a copyboy for the Daily Telegraph in Sydney and was soon a reporter. By 20, Hill moved over to broadcast, writing news copy and reading stories at a small television station. Two years later, he was an on-air newsreader for the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
It was also during this time that Hill began producing television shows, a role he would continue in during his 30s at Australia's Channel 7 before spending the next 11 years running sports programming at Nine Network.
The day Rupert Murdoch first called, Hill was covering Wimbledon. "I think what interested him was that I had done 10 years of news, that I wasn't just a sports producer," Hill said. "By the time I met Rupert, 50 percent of my career had been in television news and 50 percent had been in television sports, and there's not that many people with that kind of background anywhere in the world."
Murdoch sent Hill to London, where he joined a team that launched Sky Television, today one of Britain's largest media companies. That led to Hill being asked to work on building Fox's sports franchise, starting with the $1.4 billion bid to broadcast NFL games.
In a recent article in MediaWeek, Murdoch said he chose Hill for Fox Sports because he had a proven ability founding new media outlets. "The work of Sky Sports was an important part of our presentation to NFL owners We succeeded in large part through David's vision," he said.
At Fox Sports, Hill borrowed many of the innovations he helped develop for soccer coverage on Sky Sports. That included the Fox Box the onscreen game clock and score as well as the virtual first down line in football and the use of mini cameras and microphones.
"Those devices create a very tangible interaction with our fans," said Dallas Cowboys' owner Jerry Jones, a member of the NFL's television committee, which negotiates broadcast rights. "I'm a big fan of all the innovations David has brought to our game."
At the outset, Hill hired CBS Sports veteran Ed Goren to be president of Fox Sports. Goren remembered getting into the office around 8 a.m. for days that were finished late at night over drinks, working out ideas for the fledging division. "We'd come in the next morning and try to figure out whose stupid idea was written on this wine-stained cocktail napkin," he said.
Every time Hill would come up with an idea that raised eyebrows, Goren remembers, he would always convince skeptics by telling them, "Don't worry, I did this over in England with Sky and it worked like a treat, trust me."
Later on, Goren asked Wakeling, Hill's former partner at Sky, about those innovations. "There was only a blank stare from Vic," Goren said. "He had no idea what I was talking about."
During the early years at Fox Sports, Goren said Hill took cues from any available pop culture source including videogames, which Hill had his staff play for at least 30 minutes a day. That exercise convinced Hill and Goren that for every action or graphic there needed to be a coinciding sound.
"To put together a broadcast that had appeal to a younger demo, if this is their experience then there are things we can incorporate in our broadcast from those games," Goren said. "Today watch Access Hollywood or Fox News and when the graphic comes up there's an audio effect. Nobody had done that before we did it in our football broadcast back in 1994."
Goren and Hill have become close friends. They take vacations together and have homes in Palm Springs near each other. At the bidding in Lausanne, Switzerland, for the broadcast rights to the 2010 and 2012 Olympics, they made their presentation and then left for a nearby casino, said Glover, the NASCAR executive who worked for Walt Disney Co. at the time.
"We didn't see them at dinner and we all thought for sure they were in there negotiating," he said. "Turns out David turned to Ed after their presentation and said 'Hey, I've always wanted to check out that casino in Montreux.'"
Glover said Hill never loses track of having fun. "David brings a certain level of energy and enthusiasm," he said. Compared with producers from other networks, said Glover, "David certainly drinks more beer with us."
Goren doesn't believe Hill's departure to DirecTV is permanent, and expects him to eventually return to Fox Sports. "It's a trial separation," Goren said. "He leaves breadcrumbs and he will return. His passion and love is what we do here and we're not saying goodbye. He will be back."
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