Wednesday, February 14, 2001

Viewers put smack down on XFL

        Never thought I'd be saying this, but Vince McMahon may have aimed too high.

        The Sultan of Sleaze seems to have overestimated his audience — both its taste and its attention span — in packaging his upstart XFL. Instead of pandering to America's basest instincts, the strategy that spawned a pro wrestling empire, McMahon has committed the fatal television blunder: He has bored us.

        We knew going in that the XFL players would not be good enough to command our attention on their own, but we would never have suspected the show itself would be so tame, so timid, so tedious.

        The XFL is reality programming without the drama. It's
“The Man Show” without the laughs. It's pro wrestling without the farce or the folding chairs. It's watered-down pro football that fails to live up to the lurid standards of its own commercials.

        It's probably doomed as network programming because the bottom-feeding McMahon is incapable of making it much better, and NBC cannot allow him to make it much worse. The players simply aren't fast enough to facilitate NFL-quality violence. The cheerleaders are provocative but still clothed.

        So long as the censors forbid full frontal nudity and human sacrifice, the XFL is bound to generate more hype than heat.

Ratings plummeting

        Ratings, consequently, are dropping like an anvil with a faulty parachute. The XFL's novelty has worn off faster than a rub-on tattoo, and its staying power as network programming is already dubious.

        When last week's game between the Los Angeles Xtreme and the Chicago Enforcers delayed the start of “Saturday Night Live” by 45 minutes, NBC executives were forced to evaluate the network's priorities.

        Holding up a hit show for the sake of fringe football conjures the scene in “Patton” where a tank column is detained on a bridge by a couple of donkeys.

        This wasn't good for the donkeys.

        Live sports makes for attractive programming because it is comparatively cheap to produce and inherently unpredictable. Yet these assets are of little value if the games can't attract and hold an audience.

        Though the XFL's first week registered an impressive 10.3 rating — better than Fox's average rating for the World Series or ABC's for “Monday Night Football” — the curiosity seekers evidently have seen enough. Week Two's rating was 5.1. Any show that loses half its viewers in the week following its premier is not building a niche but courting cancellation.

        “We remain a work in progress,” NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol said.

Worse could be better

        Because NBC is committed to the XFL for two seasons, incremental progress is possible. Yet the programming matchups get more difficult in March, when the XFL goes head to head with the NCAA Tournament, and Jesse Ventura still will be a joke.

        If the XFL is to survive on network television, it ought to adopt more of McMahon's wrestling model. It needs more outrageous characters and fewer feeble in-game interviews. It should rely less on authenticity and more on acting.

        Bad football can be good fun. How else to explain the enduring appeal of the Cincinnati Bengals?



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