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NESN hopes new show is a highlight

NESN takes a natural programming step Monday when it launches a nightly version of "Sports Desk," the 15-minute news and highlight show that's been airing from 5-9 a.m. since March 1991.

The evening version of the show will air at 10 and repeat at 10:15, though that could be pushed back following "Extra Innings," the Red Sox postgame show. The Globe's "Sportsplus" show will follow "Sports Desk" most nights.

"We've always considered ourselves the first word in local sports for New Englanders every morning," said Bill Borson, NESN vice president of programming and production. "Now we'll be the first word in sports at night."

"Sports Desk" at night will go head-to-head with "New England Sports Tonight" on Fox Sports Net and "Sports Pulse" on CN8, plus the 10 p.m. news on Channels 25, 38, and 56.

"We think there's a niche for us here," said Borson. "We'll be roughly 40 minutes ahead of the sports segment on those newscasts, and the other shows are more of a talk format."

You don't have to be a TV consultant to see that the new show faces some hurdles.

For starters, NESN's main summertime programming -- Red Sox baseball -- goes off to Fox and ESPN once the postseason begins Oct. 5. And the Bruins, who were envisioned as a natural lead-in to a 10 p.m. sportscast, may not be in business this fall and winter.

For another thing, there's a new host, Hazel Mae, who will have the double assignment of launching the new show and convincing Boston viewers she's a quick learner. Mae, 34, comes to Boston from Toronto, where she anchored "Sportsnetnews" on the all-sports network, Rogers Sportsnet, and hosted a weekly baseball show, "Jzone."

Mae will work "Sports Desk" Sunday through Thursday, with present cohosts Jayme Parker, Mike Perlow, and Paul Devlin anchoring on weekends and also joining Tom Larson as reporters for the show the rest of the week.

Jeff Schneider, who previously worked as a producer on ESPN's "SportsCenter," joins NESN to add live newscast experience to the operation and coordinate the reporters' scheduling.

ESPN's research shows a steady 23-24 percent of fans get their sports scores and news from local nightly news but that the percentage that tunes to ESPN has risen from 40 percent of fans to 60 percent as competition such as CNNSI and Fox Sports Regional networks gave up the national scores and highlights operations.

NESN's relaunched and expanded show will have the obligatory new set and graphics.

Besides a hockey season, the best thing for the new endeavor will be patience and a long-term commitment to develop an audience, something FSN and CN8 have given their sports shows in that same slot.

Custom highlights

Comcast and the NFL yesterday opened the door to a new level of television viewing, officially making significantly expanded NFL highlights (8-20 minutes per game) available to its 8 million digital-tier customers as part of the Video On Demand service. Subscribers who have tried other shows on VOD understand how the service allows them to pause, fast-forward, rewind, and replay while watching a show. But what was significant yesterday is that Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue were on hand to make the introduction of the service. Tagliabue acknowledged that The NFL Network, launched less than a year ago, has been a success beyond expectations and could televise live NFL games in the future. Roberts noted that the Patriots-Colts highlights on the site had 50,000 "hits" in two days over the weekend. The On Demand offering will provide leaguewide highlights for a week, the local team's season-long highlights in an archive, and extras of local interest. For example, the local zone for New England contains highlights from the Patriots' last two Super Bowl trips and from the "Three Games to Glory" trip to Super Bowl XXXVI in 2001 . . . HBO's "Inside the NFL," which copped two Sports Emmys last spring, giving it 12 in its 27 seasons, returns for Year 28 tomorrow at 10 p.m. Bob Costas, who won for Outstanding Studio Host, and Cris Collinsworth, who won for Outstanding Studio Analyst, are joined by the rest of last year's cast, Cris Carter and Dan Marino . . . With no Patriots game Sunday and glorious September weather, "The NFL Today" on CBS (2.2 rating) and "Fox NFL Sunday" (0.8) didn't attract much local viewership. Those who tuned into the CBS show saw Willie McGinest and Richard Seymour represent themselves and their teammates with considerable class. The Fox show, meanwhile, has gone heavily into the interactive zone, polling viewers on subjects for the next week's X's-and-O's segment, what player will go "10 Yards with Terry [Bradshaw]," on Fantasy Football games, and the always-vital WebMD injury reports . . . The Sox are averaging a 10.5 rating in September, raising their season average to 9.3. "Extra Innings" is averaging a 3.6 for the season.

A look back

HBO's "Nine Innings from Ground Zero," which debuts tonight at 10, is a predictable look at how baseball in general and the Yankees in particular helped New Yorkers start down the road back to normalcy following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Having Curt Schilling pitch so well against the Yankees as Arizona won a seven-game World Series makes the Yankee hoopla more palatable to Sox fans. As President Bush limbered up under the stands to throw out the first pitch of Game 3, Derek Jeter advised him to make the pitch from the mound and "don't bounce it or they'll boo you." . . . ESPN observes the Sept. 11 anniversary by sending a production team and eight cameras to Camp Arifjan outside Kuwait City this week, doing the 1 and 2 a.m. "SportsCenter" shows live with an audience of US troops . . . The Goodyear blimp, grounded by weather during last Thursday's Patriots-Colts game, flew over the US Open Saturday, changing its advertising to patriotic and public-service messages, and displaying a waving American flag in lights during the center-court memorial ceremony before the women's final.

All over the place

This weekend's Red Sox-Yankees series is spread over the dial, with Channel 38 carrying the Friday game, Fox doing Saturday's game, and NESN the Sunday afternoon finale, a perfect lead-in to Patriots-Cardinals . . . The Sports Business Daily, the must-read, Internet-delivered capsule look at the world of sports commerce, turns 10 this week. In many ways, its success (30,000 daily copies distributed to seven countries) is as big a story as most happenings in the industry it covers . . . Bernie Corbett, voice of Harvard football for the seventh season, has received positive industry reviews for "The Only Game That Matters," a definitive history of the Harvard-Yale rivalry he co-authored with Paul Simpson. Corbett and Mike Giardi (10th season) begin calling Harvard football again Saturday when the Crimson meet Holy Cross. All radio broadcasts are on WWZN (1510 AM). Saturday's game also is on CN8.

Bill Griffith's e-mail address is 

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