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'Xtra' points push Ch. 7 show ahead of 'Sports Final'

"We own the time period." That 1995 quote was made by former WBZ-TV producer Alan Miller just after Channel 7 introduced its Sunday late-night "Sports Xtra" show. Miller, who now produces the Globe's "Sportsplus" show, produced "Sports Final" for Channel 4 back when the show indeed ruled the late Sunday night sports scene.

"I clipped that quote out of the paper and never forgot it," said Gene Lavanchy, the former Channel 7 sports anchor who now is quite happily settled in as co-host of "Fox25 Morning News." "I kept it in my desk drawer right up until I left the station last spring."

It's a good thing the clip is gone, because it's no longer accurate. For the past year, "Sports Xtra," now hosted by Joe Amorosino, has been winning the battle for the Sunday night viewer. The score is posted each week in the form of the ratings chart that runs in Tuesday's papers (along with numbers for Sunday night's earlier shows, Channel 25's "Sports Sunday" at 10:30 and Channel 56's "Sports Zone" at 10:45).

One item that keeps coming up to explain the ratings switch is Channel 7's consistent starting time, 11:25 p.m. The show opens with the night's sports report and seamlessly carries the 11 p.m. news audience along into the body of the program (no commercial breaks). The flip side is Channel 4's inconsistent starting times. Channel 7 may bemoan the fact that it doesn't have the NFL or lots of golf. Channel 4 does, and all tend to run late and push back the prime-time schedule. In recent years, that seems to happen more often than not, meaning "Sports Final" can start as late as midnight. WBZ also keeps its nightly sports report integrated as part of the 11 p.m. newscast, then has one defined break leading into "Sports Final" and another when it goes into "Sports Final OT."

Another factor may be the personnel after all. Add up all the individuals on each station and you have two strong lineups. But Channel 7 seems to have better team chemistry, whereas Channel 4 has the star system.

"Sports Final" is mostly about host Bob Lobel. He is far and away the dominant personality and most recognizable face among Boston's sports anchors. For better or worse, he stands out amid the large cast of contributors that includes the station's sports staff, a coterie of Boston and Providence newspaper people, and several former players who now do analysis.

And Lobel is a master at stirring the pot. A year ago, the discussions often degenerated to the point of shouting matches. Sports fans who didn't need the late-night loudness reached for the clicker, likely stopping first at Channel 7. Indeed, it was at about that time that the two shows' ratings charts crossed, heading in different directions. In TV, momentum is a wonderful thing when it's going your way but a brutal adversary when it isn't.

What those who clicked found was a different atmosphere at Channel 7. "Sports Xtra" now features current staffers Gary Gillis, Kip Lewis, and Wendi Nix in prominent roles. They contribute both taped features and on-site reports from the day's big game. Key regulars include Globe columnists Jackie MacMullan and Michael Holley and football analysts Fred Smerlas and Ron Borges.

To a casual observer, the two groups are pretty equal; to Frank Shorr, director of the Sports Institute at Boston University, the differences are anything but subtle.

"Channel 7's show skews towards the younger viewer," he said, "and let's face it, it isn't the over-50 set that's up at that hour on Sunday night. If I'm clicking and see Holley and MacMullan, I'm stopping to see what they have to say. Bringing aboard [the Herald's] Howard Bryant was a great move."

Fred Nutter, who will produce tonight's "Sports Xtra," said of Channel 7's rating's position, "The man on top of the mountain didn't fall there," his way of saying the show's success is a result of hard work, a team attitude, and a format that doesn't stay on one topic too long.

"We've got a consistent starting time and people pretty much know what to expect," said Nutter. "We're giving them the highlights first, then the analysis. But we're moving pretty briskly from segment to segment. And even when it goes to talk, we've got plenty of film clips to illustrate what our people are talking about."

Shorr, a Channel 7 sports producer who was let go in 2001 after 21 years at the station, professes no particular allegiance to his former employer as he notes another big difference in the shows.

"Channel 4 contains all of its sports news and highlights in its 11 o'clock news," he said. "Then `Sports Final' is a reactionary show. Instead of using highlights, they break down and analyze the big story or stories of the day. That's not going to catch the casual woman viewer, and at that hour of the night, every set of eyes counts.

"Also, Channel 7 uses its own people more prominently, and it shows. If Gary Gillis is doing a feature, I'm going to watch it. I have that much respect for his ability. And hiring Wendi Nix was a stroke of genius. I think she's going to take this town by storm. Why is WEEI radio asking her to cohost its shows? Because she's a pro. She's no Lisa Guerrero."

Russ Kenn, executive sports producer at Channel 4, has tinkered with the lineups, recruiting the Herald's Tony Massarotti from Channel 7 and cutting back appearances by Globe columnists Dan Shaughnessy (who then moved to Channel 7) and Bob Ryan.

Now he sounds like a man who wants to restructure the format.

"Talk can be an easy formula," he said. "We want to visually enhance the show, keep the conversation shorter, and now that the Sox season is over, try to explore some different stories."

The late-night crowd will watch that play out, but for now, Channel 7 rules the time slot. They just don't want to say that for the record.

Playoffs kick in CN8 has today's deciding MLS semifinal between the Revolution and MetroStars at 4 p.m. Adrian Healey and Brad Feldman have the TV call. On WEEI, Brown coach Mike Noonan and ex-Revolution goalkeeper Jeff Causey have the call.

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