Farmingdale's QB Sal Tuttle goes deep against Freeport's defense during...

Farmingdale's QB Sal Tuttle goes deep against Freeport's defense during a Conference I Championship game . (Nov. 21, 2009) Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

The Friday night lights that illuminate high school football have inspired a book, movie and TV series by that name, and they turn on most American towns every autumn weekend.

But on Long Island, where Saturday afternoon sunshine is the norm, the concept is a rarity.

That tradition will change in a small but high-profile way this season when MSG Varsity features one region-wide game each week in that storied time slot - live.

The series started last week in New Jersey and comes to Long Island Friday night when Holy Cross visits St. Anthony's at 7 p.m.

The idea is to "capture the spirit" of each community and the participating schools, MSG Varsity general manager Theresa Chillianis said, using the prime time stage as a backdrop.

"Friday night football is as American as apple pie," MSG Varsity executive producer Michael Lardner said.

He added the goal is not necessarily to showcase powerhouses but to seek well-matched opponents and a community eager to get behind the event.

(The next Long Island game after Friday night is Lindenhurst at Floyd Oct. 1.)

The live, single-game approach is a departure from the norm for MSG Varsity, which began a year ago as a hugely expensive, ambitious undertaking, one that adopted a pragmatic approach given the size and diversity of its market:

It offered its slate of games in four separate zones, sparing Long Islanders from New Jersey events and vice versa.

It also recorded games for later showing, understanding many of the people who would most like to watch also wanted to be there in person.

That remains the core strategy, but having established itself the network is branching out.

MSG Varsity's other notable enhancement for its second year is all-HD programming, further evidence Cablevision remains committed to it. (Cablevision owns both MSG Varsity and Newsday, and the two entities share content.)

That is a complex decision because, unlike most television channels, Varsity does not measure itself by ratings and advertising.

Cablevision views it as a means of community outreach and "personal connection," as Chillianis put it, and also as a customer benefit that differentiates it from competitors.

"We're one piece of the puzzle," Chillianis said, adding that if even a small percentage of customers views the channel as a reason to stay with Cablevision, "that means we've done our job."

The focus in the first year was getting a handle on working with the more than 600 schools in the channel's footprint and producing 400 games for the TV channel and about 3,000 overall, including its website. (The channel also has a nightly news show covering the region.)

"What we've learned is that it's a hard thing to do," Chillianis said. "It's a lot of legwork." Even with a full-time staff of about 140.

Lardner said he doesn't need ratings to know the channel is succeeding. He hears it in the positive feedback from schools, and especially in something he said he hears almost daily from adults:

"The first thing out of their mouths is, 'What a great idea; why didn't they have this when I was in high school?' " he said. "I think we've captured the community."

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