You may not know his name, but you almost certainly know his handiwork. David Hill, chief executive and chairman of Fox Sports Media Group, is credited with inventing both the first-down line marker on football TV broadcasts and the box displaying the score and time on nearly every sports broadcast. The 64-year-old Australian native attributes much of his success to the fact that he didn’t learn many American sports until he was an adult, giving him a unique perspective on them. A self-described TV fanatic, he directs most of his bountiful energy toward thinking up new places to stick cameras at sporting events, how to capture the sounds of the games and what graphics can improve the home viewer’s experience. Hill started his career as a newspaper copy boy, and achieved success as a producer and television host in Australia before his fellow countryman, Rupert Murdoch, asked him to run the media mogul’s new satellite network in London. Hill jumped at the chance, not knowing that it would lead to his opportunity to run Fox Sports and broadcast the World Series, the Super Bowl and a host of other world-class sporting events. Hill recently sat down with the Business Journal in his spacious office overlooking the Fox Studios lot in Century City to discuss sports, television and his fondness for vegemite, that peculiarly Down Under sandwich spread made from fermented yeast extract.
Question: As head of Fox Sports, you must be a big sports fan.
Answer: I’m not a sports fan. The first time I bought a ticket to watch a sports event, I was 26.
I’m not a fanatic in the American sense of the word, where you know all the stats and it becomes kind of an obsession. Living in L.A., because sports is so tribal and it’s what you discuss with your friends, I’m interested in what happens to the Dodgers and the Lakers. I like sports but I’m not a fanatic. I know that in any sporting competition, one team is going to win and one team is going to lose – there’s nothing I can do about that. I find that if you are too much of a fanatic, you’re worrying about the moment, the action. But a good producer thinks 10 minutes ahead.
So it’s more about television than sports?
I’m a television fan. My love is television. I love making television.
What is it about television that is so appealing?
I wish I knew. It’s my addiction. I find it unbelievably exciting, fascinating. I love writing. I love the art of creation. I love dreaming stuff up. I love – love – working with clever people. To me, the great thing about television is that you have the opportunity to improve on what you’ve done day by day, week by week, show by show. There’s very few areas of human endeavor that you can change on the fly as quickly as you can on television.
What have you done in the television world?
I probably spent more hours producing various types of shows than I care to think about – sporting shows, I’ve done documentaries, I’ve done a comedy series. The only thing I haven’t really done is a drama. I’ve written a soap that ran for eight years, called “Dream Team,” in the U.K.
What makes you good at creating compelling television?
I have no idea. Probably because I’ve got ADD. I tend to think in 30-second increments. I have no education, as I started work at 17. I squeaked through high school.
For somebody with limited education, you’ve had some pretty noteworthy achievements.
Probably the smartest thing I’ve ever done is put the score and the time in the corner.
Yeah, before you came along, sporting broadcasts did not have a permanent score box on screen at all times. It seems obvious now, but how did you think that up?
I was watching a soccer game in England, and the BBC back then were incredibly lazy producers. So I’m sitting there watching this game for 20 minutes and there was no score. I’m getting more and more irate – my wife threatened to turn off the TV – because I didn’t know what the score was. This was when we were building BSkyB and I thought if ever I get soccer, I’ll put a little thing in the corner that gives the score and the time. I never would have thought of it if I’d been in the States because in the States, you always get the score every minute or so.
Sports fans tend to be pretty opposed to change. What was the reaction?
I got death threats.
The fanatic is a traditionalist by definition and doesn’t like any changes whatsoever. I got death threats, and my colleagues in various networks said they would never do it. Now, of course, it’s ubiquitous. I just wish that I’d copyrighted it.
That wasn’t your only major innovation. You were also responsible for putting the first-down line marker on football broadcasts.
Yeah. See, I didn’t grow up with American football – I had to learn it. What are they trying to do? Well, they’re trying to get the first down, so let’s show (the viewer) where they’ve got to get to the first down. I was fiddling around on an early computer program, and if you put an X here and you put an X there, you got a line. And I thought, wow. It was something I talked to John Madden about way back in ’94. He said, “Boom! Let’s do it!”
Has your unfamiliarity with many American sports helped you bring a fresh perspective to the broadcasts?
Sure, I think so. I don’t pretend to know anything about a sport. I sit down and read its history and I try and put myself back in the mindset of the very first time that someone decided that they wanted to pay some money to watch other people have fun. I read every history book I can about how the sport developed. I try to visualize in my mind what it would have looked like to a farm laborer walking by a field to see nine guys and three bases and a home plate hitting a ball around. What did they see in it? What was the fascination? Was it a wish fulfillment? What was the psychology of them wanting to see the sport? Then I build it up in my head and I try and present it on screen. I probably look at sports more from a filmmaker’s viewpoint, telling the story of the sport, rather than covering it.
Fox recently showed the World Series. It must have been a disappointment when the Yankees and Phillies – which likely would have been big ratings draws – did not make it. Were you secretly rooting for them?
The only team that I root for are the Nielsens. What I was really hoping with the Giants and the Rangers, when we looked at the pitching rosters on both sides, we felt that when you look at the depth, we were going to get seven games. We hadn’t had a seven-game series for eight years and we thought this is definitely going to be one for the ages. It wasn’t.
One major sporting event not on Fox was the Olympic Games. Were you disappointed you lost in the bidding to NBC?
Yes and no. It’s a business. Whatever we buy we have to believe that we can make a profit on it. So with the Olympic Games, we figured out what we thought it would return in revenue and how much it would cost to produce and we took into account the revenue you would misplace. We thought that was worth $1.3 billion, which I thought was a pretty good bid, and NBC decided that they would bid $2.2 billion.
Were you surprised their bid was so much higher?
I was thinking that they must have had a different calculator than mine. We came back from the bid and I said, “My God, was I so wrong?” So we beat ourselves up for months. I wasn’t at all surprised when NBC said, “Oh, my God, we’re going to lose $300 million.”
Will you bid on the next Games?
Sure. Absolutely. Will it break our hearts if we don’t get it? Probably. But as long as it doesn’t break our economic structure …
How did you get into sports production?
It was only when I turned 30 that I moved into sports production, thinking that it would last about six months and I’d get bored, whereas in fact I fell in love with it. It was a complete fluke.
I started as a newspaper copy boy when I was 17 and became a newspaper reporter. At 19, I started work as a journalist in television. For 10 years, I worked as a television journalist specializing in politics and economics. At one stage, I did a stint hosting the Australian version of the “Today” show. I’ve just been dead lucky that people keep offering me jobs. I was very happy working in Australia, and then I got a call from Mr. Murdoch, who wanted to know if I wanted to start a television channel in London. I said yes.
Rupert Murdoch just called you out of the blue?
I was just finishing producing Wimbledon for Australian television and I got a call. So I went to work for News Corp. and started Eurosport and helped start Sky Television, which became BSkyB, and started Sky Sports. We got that up and running and in 1993, Chase Carey and Rupert bought the NFL rights for Fox and much to my surprise, I was told I was coming up to run it.
I was told. My wife is from Nebraska, and she and I were very happy in London. I said, “Darling, we’re moving to Los Angeles,” and she burst into tears. She said, “I don’t want to go to L.A.,” and I said, “Well, we’re going to L.A.” So we came out here and I thought I’d last about a week, maybe two.
I had no idea about the NFL. In any job, I have always been prepared to get sacked after a month. Always.
How is your relationship with Murdoch?
He tells me what to do and I do it. (Laughs.) He’s terrific. I’ve worked for him for 22 years, I think. I worked for him in London; I worked for him here. He seems to have the ability to think around corners and to know what’s going on five years before it does.
Do you watch a lot of Fox shows?
I like “Glee” very much. I sit there with my kids and we watch “Glee” and thoroughly enjoy it. I think it’s one of the best directed shows I’ve ever seen. I love “Family Guy,” love “The Simpsons.” I think Seth MacFarlane is going to go down as one of the great creative comic geniuses of all time.
What about shows on other networks?
“South Park” I love, and Jon Stewart I think is hysterical. But I watch very little television now. I read. My huge interest is reading, probably more than anything.
What are you reading now?
I just started a new biography of Cleopatra. I’ve just finished the Keith Richard’s autobiography.
What’s your favorite book?
I don’t have a favorite book. There’s a bunch of books I love, but not one favorite. I don’t have a favorite song. Everyone says, “What’s your favorite song?” I don’t know. It depends on my mood. What’s my favorite film? I don’t know.
You’ve got a lot of energy. Do you ever see yourself retiring?
I don’t think so. No. My dad couldn’t wait to turn 65 and retire. All his buddies did exactly the same thing. And they did, and three months later they were bored rigid. I think my generation and I think your generation is going to be totally different.
You must have other things you’d like to do.
What I would love to do – and I don’t want to do it while I’m working because my brain won’t focus – I don’t think that there’s a real good book with all the tricks for doing television. I would like to write that.
When will that happen?
I honestly have no idea. I need to learn Spanish, and I need to learn to play the bass guitar. Those are the two things I need to do before I do that.
How did you meet your wife?
I met my wife drinking Bollinger Champagne in a helicopter over the Indian Ocean off Perth, West Australia.
You’re going to need to give me a little more information.
It was serendipitous. My wife, Joan, worked for Citibank in Phoenix. As fate would have it, the America’s Cup was being sailed in Perth, West Australia, in the mid-’80s. Citibank, very sensibly, decided they would send a team out to see if they could get the rights to be the bank of record for the America’s Cup the next time around. Joan was with the team and I was producing the America’s Cup for my network. On the day after the racing, the local station sent my core staff down in a helicopter to a vineyard for lunch. We hopped onto this helicopter, a very bedraggled group of television producers, directors, announcers who had been drinking till late at night before because it was all over. And there was on the other side of the helicopter a bunch of squeaky clean American bankers. We sat down, I looked across and thought, “God, she is drop dead gorgeous.” One thing led to another and we’ve now got children and all that.
How many children?
I have four, all around the world. Thirty-two, 30, 16 and 8. A girl who runs a restaurant in Melbourne, a boy who’s been in Mexico City for two years organizing the Mexican bicentenary, a girl who’s a junior in high school and a third-grader in Pacific Palisades. So I have more parenting problems than anyone you’re ever going to meet.
Do you go back to Australia much?
No. We’re going back this Christmas. My two brothers and their families are there. But no. It’s actually something my wife, Joan, insisted on far more than I did.
What was it like growing up there?
Oh, pretty good. Growing up in Sydney is like growing up in Southern California. It’s outdoors and you’re always out and about. The good thing about the Australian education system is that kids are forced to play sports until they’re 18. They have to play a team sport, whether it’s cricket or the equivalent of baseball, or rugby or soccer. You’re expected to play and you’re expected to train. It’s just part of life. It was a lot of fun with two little brothers.
I see you have a surfboard. Do you still surf?
Yeah, but not here. I don’t like the waves here. The waves are very sloppy. I grew up surfing on these beautiful waves – you know, four to five foot, good left and right breaks. Here it’s not like that. You’ve got to drive forever and if you get to any break where there’s any waves, there’s 400 guys.
We Americans have a few stereotypes about Australians. You must encounter those regularly.
I can’t help myself: Do you have vegemite in your home?
Yes I do. I’m addicted to vegemite. Vegemite is something that my children watch me eating and say yuck. And I’m addicted to Cherry Ripe candy bars.
TITLE: Chief Executive
COMPANY: Fox Sports Media Group
BORN: Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia; 1946
EDUCATION: High school graduate
CAREER TURNING POINT: Deciding to become a newspaper copy boy.
MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE: Chase Carey, chief operating officer of News Corp.; Mr. Flegg, Hill’s 10th-grade English teacher.
PERSONAL: Lives in Pacific Palisades with his wife, Joan; has four children.
ACTIVITIES: Reading, surfing, playing golf.
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