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They can't buy a hit

Jason Katims was born in Brooklyn, spent his early childhood at the Ebbets Field Apartments and is a lifelong Mets fan. In other words, he's one of us - a sports guy.

What he is trying to do now, though, is rare in his chosen field of producing TV shows: establishing a durable, critically acclaimed hit with a sports theme.

"Friday Night Lights," based on the book and film about Texas high school football, already has won over critics and has a passionate fan base. But its ratings have been as barren as West Texas dust.

Keeping it alive long enough to find a broader following required an innovative deal sealed earlier this month in which DirecTV will share in the cost in return for showing episodes first, beginning Oct. 1. NBC will offer the same episodes starting in February.

"It's a very exciting way to not only keep the show alive," said Katims, an executive producer, "but hopefully breathe new life into it."

That will require bridging a gap that much sports-themed culture faces: convincing non-sports fans to give sports itself a chance, and convincing sports fans to give fictional drama about sports a chance.

"The truth is, people who love football and people who hate football love this show when they find it," Katims said. "The hardest thing from a marketing and publicity point of view is getting people to sample the show."

Many sports movies have found a way to cross over. TV? Not so much.

"Other than 'The White Shadow,' I don't know that television has had sports shows that have tapped into what's wonderful about the culture of sports in the way movies have," Katims said.

One trick is balancing emotion and drama with credible action, lest sports fans be turned off. Katims said the football is kept realistic partly by shooting full plays, not pieces of plays made to look whole.

"We really are committed to making the football, the playing itself and everything surrounding it, the coach, locker room . . . feel as authentic as we possibly can," he said.

After only two seasons, FNL ranks near the top among fictional sports shows in TV history. But that's like being the best sports-themed opera or epic poem or kabuki play. The competition is modest.

Inspired by FNL's renewal, I recruited readers of my WatchDog blog to nominate the best (and worst) shows with sports as a central element. (A blanket thanks to everyone as I rip off your stuff.)

The clear favorite other than FNL: "White Shadow," starring Manhasset's own Ken Howard. It has gained exposure to a new generation thanks to YES' need to fill winter hours. The reruns reveal a show with dated trappings but an admirable willingness to tackle sensitive subjects.

Like FNL, critics were kinder to the show than the ratings were. One sports show that made a ratings dent was "Coach," a stalwart that reached the top 10 in the early 1990s. It was about a football coach with quirky colleagues and a girlfriend/wife (Shelley Fabares) who played Brian Piccolo's wife in "Brian's Song."

Sorry, "Who's the Boss" and "Cheers" don't count, despite central characters who are former major-leaguers. Nor does "Everybody Loves Raymond," because unlike an actual Newsday sports columnist I know who writes in his basement, Ray Barone rarely seems to work. (He doesn't even blog!)

I am eliminating two other good shows about sportswriters, "The Odd Couple" and "My Boys," even though its stars do work on occasion. "The Slap Maxwell Story" deserves mention among sportswriter shows, but most of us are nicer than him. Really.

"Arli$$" qualifies and has a quirky charm and A-list cameos, but it is not as good as "Sports Night," which lasted only two seasons portraying a SportsCenter-like show.

Speaking of ESPN, "Playmakers" was provocative but disappeared rapidly in 2003 after an unamused reaction from the NFL.

"Bay City Blues" lasted only four episodes in 1983 but is remembered for a cast that included Dennis Franz, Ken Olin and Sharon Stone.

It was better than another short-lived baseball show, "Ball Four," in 1976, starring Jim Bouton himself and written by Newsday TV critic Marvin Kitman.

"Listen Up," a bad show based on Tony Kornheiser's life, lasted one season in 2004-05, five fewer than the popular kids-oriented "Hang Time," which featured Reggie Theus and Dick Butkus.

The shame is that more quality sports shows have not come along, and that the few that have have struggled to find a wide audience. FNL is only the latest.

Bill Simmons summed up its tenuous state in ESPN The Magazine last autumn, declaring himself the "biggest White Shadow fan on the planet" but calling FNL "the greatest sports show ever."

Alas, he added, "FNL is going to die prematurely because five times as many Americans would rather watch an acerbic British guy belittle dreadful singers on a reality show."

For now, it continues to hang on, trying to deliver us from a TV tradition that includes the likes of "The Waverly Wonders." Like "White Shadow," ''Waverly Wonders" features a washed-up pro basketball player who coaches teens. It lasted one month in 1978 and starred . . . Joe Namath!

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