Relax, fans Fox will soon be sly in NFL hunt, too

December 21, 1993|By Ray Frager | Ray Frager,Staff Writer

Hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing fill the land. One of America's favorite sports is switching networks.

What will this upstart do to our beloved game? These people don't know the sport. Oh, woe is us.

Such is the concern in some corners with the Fox Network's entrance into NFL television and CBS's exit. But these alarms are something of an echo from a few years back. Remember when CBS was awarded the major-league baseball contract that ran from 1990 to 1993?

We all got through that OK, didn't we?

At that point, CBS hadn't carried baseball for about 25 years, and hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing filled the land. One of America's favorite sports . . . You get the idea.

Sure, CBS made some mistakes with the baseball package, the primary one being that it didn't carry many games. But a lack of regular-season telecasts isn't an issue when it comes to the NFL.

Using CBS and baseball as a model, there is even less reason to worry about how Fox will present the NFL. CBS had its early problems, but the network soon over came them. And Fox will have an advantage in football that CBS didn't have in baseball. The departure of CBS from pro football will throw a lot of experienced broadcasting talent -- in front of and behind the camera -- into the market. It's real NFL free agency, and Fox should be able to take its pick.

Even before the final decision came down yesterday, CBS' John Madden, television's best football analyst, practically sounded as if he were putting out a resume.

"I don't know what CBS is going to do, but I'm going to stay with football," Madden told the San Francisco Examiner over the weekend. "My deal with CBS is no football, no Madden."

Following the lead of news divisions, network sports operations don't necessarily keep many announcers under contract on much more than a seasonal basis. So a lot of sportscasters -- particularly the analysts, who are football specialists -- will be out there job hunting.

The same might not be true for play-by-play men or studio hosts, who perform several functions for the network. For example, Madden's partner on CBS, Pat Summerall, is the network's voice of golf and the U.S. Open tennis tournament, and the network's host of "NFL Today," Greg Gumbel, will be prime-time anchor of the Winter Olympics.

If there is a drawback to Fox's entrance, it is the possible breakup of entertaining teams such as Summerall-Madden and Gumbel-Terry Bradshaw.

But how many pairings are out there that you are going to miss? And what would be so upsetting about a new set of analysts? Is anyone going to enjoy the NFL less because he can't hear Matt Millen or Dan Fouts?

Though critics pay a lot of attention to what the announcers are saying, fans are drawn to the game, to the matchups. If you're an NFL fan, you'd watch Saturday's Oilers-49ers game even if Chevy Chase and Andrew Dice Clay were the announcing team (though maybe you'd turn down the volume).

Which brings us to the frightening proposition of having to find a different station for your NFL games. For a fan who remembers that Jim Brown wore No. 32 or that the greatest game ever played happened in 1958 or even that a touchdown is six points, flipping to the right channel can't be so intimidating.

Part of the argument against Fox is that 120 of its 139 affiliates are in UHF positions on the dial. But in a television universe where two-thirds of the audience has cable and more than 90 percent could, viewers don't distinguish between UHF and other types of stations.

Perhaps initial ratings will be off slightly. The small part of the audience that doesn't have cable and can't pick up the weaker signals of Fox affiliates could be left out. However, football fans aren't going to spend Sundays wandering the house in a daze, clicking the remote at the microwave because they can't find the game.

Steve Marks, general manager of Baltimore's Fox affiliate, Channel 45, WBFF, said: "People watch programs. They really don't care what station it's on. . . . If people want to find our station, they will."

The success of Fox's "The Simpsons" certainly helps make Marks' argument. And the NFL is at least as big a television franchise as Bart and Homer.

THE TV LINEUP

When Fox television network outbid CBS for the NFC portion of the professional football television package, and NBC retained its AFC package, it further reduced the CBS presence in sports

programming:

CBS

* Lillehammer Winter Olympics in 1994.

* NCAA basketball, through 1997-98.

* Masters and PGA Championship golf.

* U.S. Open tennis.

* Tour de France cycling.

* Daytona 500 auto race.

* Carquest and John Hancock bowls.

4( * College World Series championship.

ABC

* NFL Monday night football through 1997; 1995 Super Bowl.

* Major-league baseball through 1999.

* College Football Association games, through 1995.

* Big Ten and Pac-10 football, through 1996.

* SEC championship football game through 1995.

* Sugar, Rose, Citrus, Independence, Blue-Gray and Aloha bowls.

* U.S. Open, British Open, Tournament of Champions, Skins Game in golf.

* Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont Stakes, Hambletonian in horse racing.

* Indianapolis 500 auto race.

+ * World Cup soccer in 1994.

NBC

* AFC games through 1997; 1996 and '98 Super Bowls.

* Major-league baseball through 1999.

* Atlanta Summer Olympics in 1996.

* NBA, through 1996-97 season.

* NHL All-Star Game.

* Notre Dame home football games, through 1995.

* Fiesta, Cotton and Orange bowls.

* Players Championship, Ryder Cup golf.

* Heisman Trophy Award.

rTC * Breeders' Cup horse racing.

0$ * Wimbledon, French Open tennis.

FOX

A5 * NFL's NFC games, through 1997; 1997 Super Bowl.

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