The pay-per-view television business was in the boxing ring last Saturday night and it got stronger every time Evander Holyfield landed a right hook, a jab or a combination of punches on Mike Tyson.
When Tyson was knocked down in the sixth round, many local cable system operators were elated the fight had lasted even that long.
By the 11th round, when Holyfield scored a technical knockout of Tyson, pay per view was looking better than ever.
"We are real excited about the length of the fight and the quality of the fight," said Ted Hodgins, pay-per-view manager for Media General Cable Inc., which serves Fairfax County. "I almost dreaded coming into work the Monday after a Tyson fight because of all the calls I knew we were going to get from people dissatisfied with the length of the fight."
Had Holyfield not proven to be a worthy opponent, "event" pay-per-view, driven largely by boxing, was headed for major trouble, according to boxing experts, promoters, cable operators and fans.
"We certainly think if Tyson had blown Holyfield out of the ring, it would have had an impact, and probably not a positive one," said Jay Larkin, senior vice president of Showtime Sports and Event Programming, one of the distributors of the fight.
From the mid-1980s to 1993, non-movie events on pay per view grew to produce $219 million in revenue annually, said Paul Kagan Associates Inc., a media research firm in Carmel, Calif.
But event pay per view stalled in 1994, with revenue dropping to $215 million partly because of the absence of Tyson, who was sent to prison in Indiana on a 1992 rape conviction. Tyson was released in March 1995, the year that event pay per view scored $260 million.
For the most part, other event programming on pay per view has not been widely successful. Concerts, college football games and, recently, wrestling have not been able to produce the kind of dollars that result from major boxing events. Movies have been the one reliable moneymaker for pay per view.
For example, NBC offered three pay-per-view cable channels to cover the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and lost nearly $100 million.
"The pay-per-view alternative was meant to be a complement for the network coverage," NBC spokesman Ed Markey said. "It was aimed at the viewer who wanted to see every heat and every round of every event."
The problem was that viewers could see the major events for free on the network.
College sports have not been big draws on pay per view, with many free options available on other channels. Concerts on cable lack the acoustical quality fans might get in an arena or concert hall.
But boxing is different. "It has the feel of a live attraction," Larkin said.
Barry Gould, co-owner of Gould Media Services, a sports media research company in York, Maine, calls boxing a "hand-to-hand contest without helmets or pads."
Despite boxing's appeal, many in pay per view were concerned that Tyson's quick dispatching of opponents had seriously eroded the willingness of fans to pay upwards of $50 per match.
Tyson's four pay-per-view fights before his bout with Holyfield lasted a total of 18 minutes 40 seconds, and the number of subscribers declined with each fight, according to Gould Media. His last fight before Holyfield -- with Bruce Seldon -- lasted all of 109 seconds.
"Unquestionably because of the terribly quick and noncompetitive fights Tyson had, people were getting really turned off by pay per view," said Rock Newman, the promoter for boxer Riddick Bowe. "Holyfield's spectacular performance was a gigantic shot in the arm."
Showtime said that there were 1.6 million to 1.7 million pay-per-view buys for the Holyfield fight, including the direct-to-home satellite market. Gould Media put the total at 1.3 million, not counting the home-satellite market.
In the Washington area, there were 33,792 buys for Tyson-Holyfield, according to Cable TV Montgomery, which tabulated the figures. That was an 18 percent drop from Tyson's first fight after being released from prison.
"There were a lot of people that didn't buy the fight because they were sick and tired of two-round fights," said Gould.
At least one cable company, Cablevision, of Woodbury, N.Y., decided to offer a $9.95 pay-per-round charge up to a maximum of $49.95 for the Tyson-Holyfield fight.
"This offer addresses a key consumer concern. Premium-priced events of short duration can leave customers unsatisfied," Cablevision's chief executive James L. Dolan said in a statement.
The per-round pricing structure was so popular and widely advertised that cable subscribers across the country thought it was being offered by their system. Showtime officials said that, to its knowledge, only Cablevision in Woodbury offered pay-per-round. Cablevision is the nation's sixth-largest operator, with 2.8 million customers in 19 states, including New York, Massachusetts and Ohio.
Prices in the Washington area ranged from $59.95 at Media General to $34.95 at Maryland Cable, which serves northern Prince George's County.
Across the area, boxing fans who missed the fight are borrowing taped versions of it or vowing that they won't miss the rematch.
"A lot of people are kicking themselves that didn't order the fight," said Hodgins, of Media General's Fairfax system.
Steve Lamphier, a member of the Riverdale Fire Department, which ordered the fight, was disappointed that he had skipped the fight.
"I wish I had been there," he said. "I decided to do something else because the last fights weren't any good. But I'll be there next time."
That's exactly what Showtime, the promoters and local cable operators are predicting. They contend that Holyfield punched interest back into pay-per-view boxing and as a result a higher number of subscribers will order the rematch between Holyfield and Tyson, which could occur as early as June.
Last Saturday's fight should also increase the interest in other boxing bouts, such as the upcoming Dec. 14 match between Bowe and Andrew Golota, Hodgins and other cable executives said.
First thing last Monday, Hodgins said he doubled his order for direct-mail advertising for the Bowe-Golota fight to 10,000 pieces of mail from 5,000. PUNCHING IT UP
The number of pay-per-view subscribers to Mike Tyson matches has declined with each fight since Tyson was released from prison. However, the recent Tyson-Holyfield bout, which went into the 11th round, was a boost to the pay-per-view industry. Mike Tyson vs. . . . Peter McNeeley
1.5 million viewers
89 seconds Frank Bruno
1.4 million viewers
6.50 minutes Bruce Seldon
1.1 million viewers
1:49 minutes Evander Holyfield 1.3 million viewers* 30:37 minutes *Unlike the other numbers, this does not include viewership among households with direct-to-home satellite service. CAPTION: Mike Tyson vs. Evander Holyfield, Nov. 1996 CAPTION: Mike Tyson vs. Frank Bruno, March 1996 CAPTION: Mike Tyson vs. Bruce Seldon, Sept. 1996 CAPTION: Mike Tyson vs. Peter McNeeley, Aug. 1995