The fourth network out-Foxed CBS to get football. Now what?

By Kate Meyers
Updated February 04, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

“CBS Sports announced today that they have purchased the rights to televise the 1998 Winter Olympics in Japan. I was shocked: Who’d have thought that there would still be a CBS Sports in 1998?” — David Letterman on CBS‘ Late Show

The Monday-morning quarterbacking hasn’t let up. Network business deals rarely stir up fervor among lay viewers, but ever since Fox spent $1.6 billion to strip CBS of its National Football Conference broadcast rights for the next four seasons, all sorts of sideline observers have been trying to forecast the next plays. As the post-Super Bowl, new-season scrimmaging begins, here’s an analysis of lingering questions about the deal.

Why Did CBS Fumble? A network source reveals that as late as the evening before the NFL’s Dec. 17 decision, CBS execs were so certain the NFC would be theirs for a 39th year that CBS Sports president Neal Pilson was confidently patting commentator Terry Bradshaw on the back, promising to renegotiate his contract as soon as the papers were inked. The next day CBS staffers went into shock. Because CBS was averaging annual losses of $100 million on football, the network had taken a tough stance with the NFL. ”It was important to create an opportunity for us to make a little profit,” says CBS Broadcast Group president Howard Stringer. ”We were the feistiest in our negotiations. It didn’t win us any friends. So when there’s somebody coming in with an extra $100 million, we didn’t have a chance.”

Is Fox Crazy for Paying So Much? Yes and no. Fox will likely lose more bucks than CBS did — ratings, and ad revenues, will almost certainly be lower. But in the face of fifth-network threats from Paramount and Time Warner, Fox owner Rupert Murdoch needed something to light a fire under his stagnant operation. Pro football brings prestige and will keep affiliates from defecting, especially those stations disillusioned by Fox’s pathetic late-night failure with Chevy Chase. Both Fox and the NFL hope to do a little audience swapping. Undoubtedly, the network wants to bring in the NFL’s older male audience; the league wants to make fans out of Fox’s youth audience. And Murdoch’s grand plan may be to beam the games over his Sky satellite network, picking up new fans worldwide.

How Will Fox Cover Football? Since Fox Sports didn’t exist until six weeks ago, much is up in the air. As president David Hill has declared, ”Homer Simpson will not be in the broadcast booth.” In fact, the mike will be manned by blustery analyst John Madden, who was with CBS for 15 years and declined bids from NBC and ABC to take Fox’s blockbuster $8-million-a-year deal. Sidekick Pat Summerall and several CBS producers will reportedly join him.

How Will Sunday TV Change? CBS will probably counterprogram to draw women (expect more ice skating). Stringer says he has received pitches for shows ranging ”from Martha Stewart, to interactive, to bizarre sports — which we won’t be doing — to family movies.” Without football as a lead-in, CBS’ Sunday-night dominance may suffer a tad.

What’s the Best Part of This Whole Transaction? Waving goodbye to that dumpy couple from the CBS commercials who are ”big fans.”