SCREEN TEST

Times Staff Writer

The 11,000-square-foot sound stage just down Washington Boulevard from Sony Pictures in Culver City was empty a few months ago. Now it is a state-of-the-art studio, complete with a fancy set, three control rooms and television monitors everywhere.

Adjacent to the sound stage is an 8,000-square-foot office building, formerly vacant but now filled with furniture, computers and 64 full-time staff members.

This is the Los Angeles home of NFL Network, scheduled for launch today. The network's signature show, "NFL Total Access," will originate from the L.A. studio and officially kick off the network at 5 p.m., with a repeat at 8.

Meanwhile, in the Philadelphia suburb of Mount Laurel, N.J., where NFL Films is based in a 200,000-square-foot, three-story building, some 300 producers, editors and production assistants have been working around the clock to get ready for today's launch. NFL Films will supply about two-thirds of the programming.

And in New York at the NFL's headquarters, where an NFL Network has been in the planning stage for eight to 10 years, the anticipation has reached a zenith.

The much-talked-about NFL Network is finally here.

The NBA has had its own cable network, NBA TV, for four years. The Golf Channel has been around since 1995. The Tennis Channel launched this year. For auto racing buffs, there is Speed Channel. There are two networks dedicated to horse racing. College Sports Television (CSTV) offers minor college sports and Olympic sports.

So it was about time the NFL joined the fray.

The man responsible for getting NFL Network off the ground -- and staying within a budget believed to be around $100 million -- is Steve Bornstein, who was one of the original driving forces behind ESPN.

Bornstein, 51, who went to work for ESPN shortly after it launched in 1979, became ESPN president in 1990, was its first chairman, and added ABC Sports president to his duties in 1996. In 1999, he became a top Disney executive and most recently was president of ABC Television before resigning in May 2002.

A few months later, the NFL brought Bornstein on board as a consultant to lead negotiations on a new NFL Sunday Ticket deal. In January, he was named the NFL's executive vice president of new media as well as president and CEO of NFL Network.

Bornstein, who has been splitting time between Los Angeles and New York, talked about NFL Network and its potential for growth during an interview in his L.A. office.

As things stand now, NFL Network will be available only on DirecTV (Channel 212), but that alone makes it the most widely distributed sports network at launch -- including ESPN2 and ESPNews, which Bornstein launched while at ESPN. DirecTV has 11.8 million subscribers.

The cable industry, some operators have said, is resisting because the NFL Sunday Ticket pay package was given to DirecTV exclusively and is not available to digital cable until 2006.

Bornstein said that is not the case.

"We have had discussions with operators, both before we announced that we were going to launch and subsequent to it," he said. "I am confident that there is a demand out there from cable operators for quality programming to help drive their business, and NFL Network fits that bill."

Bornstein said discussions are ongoing.

NBA TV began televising games last season. But Bornstein said there are no plans to televise live regular-season games on NFL Network.

However, selected exhibition games will be televised beginning next season and there are also plans to televise NFL Europe games. Beginning this season, one regular-season Sunday game will be edited down to one hour and replayed in high definition on Wednesday nights at 9.

"But as for our regular-season games and postseason games, we have no plans at this time to put them on NFL Network," Bornstein said. "All those games are actually under contract for the next two years after this season, and I don't anticipate that NFL Network will be a player after that in the next contract."

There has been conjecture that maybe NFL Network was created to eventually carry Sunday Ticket. But Bornstein said that is not possible because Sunday Ticket is a multi-channel package and NFL Network is one channel.

"All games on Sunday Ticket?" he said, repeating a question. "That's not in the realm of possibility.

"We think it's a very attractive package. But we have to balance our television coverage. Strong over-the-air television has been a hallmark of the NFL's distribution plan since 1960 to the current day. So we need to really balance that with new media and how we distribute our product."

Bornstein points out that the NFL is always adding to its television coverage, never subtracting. He cites the addition of Monday night football in 1970 and Sunday night football in 1987.

"You can't predict the future," he said, "but certainly 10 years from now there will be more choices than there are now, just as there are now more choices than there were 10 years ago."

For now, Bornstein's focus is on programming NFL Network over the first year and making sure "NFL Total Access" is top quality.

Rich Eisen, formerly of ESPN, was brought in to host the one-hour show that will air every weekday, generally at 5 p.m.

"Rich was my No. 1 draft pick," Bornstein said. "My Michael Vick. He becomes the voice and face of NFL Network."

Eisen will be joined nightly by former NFL players Ken Norton Jr. and Seth Joyner. Warren Sapp and Michael Strahan will be Thursday night contributors, with Mike Ditka and Marv Levy offering their insights several nights a week.

Thirteen current players have been signed to contribute, and Mike Pereira, the NFL's director of officiating, will appear each Monday night to discuss rules of the game.

The "NFL Total Access" crew will have instant access to players because special cameras and equipment have been installed at each team's facility. The interview area locations vary from team to team. For example, the New York Giants' interview area will be in the lunchroom. For other teams, the location may be the practice field, the coach's office, or even a hallway.

NFL Films will account for most of the remainder of the programming. NFL Films will also continue to supply programming to ESPN and its other regular outlets.

But NFL Films has never had this kind of clearance.

"We're going to clear the bench," NFL Films President Steve Sabol said. "Everyone plays, everything plays."

With the launch date here, and an initial programming lineup set, Bornstein must now concentrate on getting more distribution for his network.

Three weeks ago, Multichannel News quoted Fred Dressler, Time Warner Cable senior vice president of programming, as saying, "They've come to us and told us what their plans are and what they would like to have. And we've told them that we don't think there's sufficient value in the proposition to do a deal at the moment."

The magazine quoted a Cox Communications spokesperson as saying, "Issues of content, pricing, packaging and the unavailability of Sunday Ticket are preventing us from reaching a distribution agreement."

NFL Network is reportedly charging cable operators 20 cents per subscriber per month.

Some cable operators want to put NFL Network on a pay tier along with other sports channels in a package that would cost around $5 a month.

It is Bornstein's goal to someday reach 70 million to 80 million homes, but that is not attainable if NFL Network is placed on a sports tier.

NBA TV agreed to placement on a sports tier, and although the network is available in 40 million homes, it is believed that only about 3 million actually receive it.

DirecTV, as part of its NFL Sunday Ticket deal, agreed to put NFL Network on its basic service, meaning all DirecTV subscribers get the network.

"At the end of the day, we are about distribution," Bornstein said. "And if tiering is a fact of life and we can get massive households with tiering, then we are perfectly acceptable to that."

Analysts say cable operators now have the leverage. They can live without NFL Network.

But once Sunday Ticket becomes available to digital cable after the 2005 season, the leverage swings back Bornstein's way.

He'll then have the carrot operators seek, and packaging NFL Network with Sunday Ticket would be an obvious sales tactic.

That's reason enough why NFL Network is not just another niche channel.

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