There's more to CBS's NFL ouster than any 'gentlemen's deal'

December 21, 1993|By Phil Jackman

It seems like only yesterday we were talking about millions when it came to taxes, waste, underwriting government programs and countries were lining up for our foreign aid. As for television, the fees networks were spending for the rights to air sporting events were a relative pittance.

At the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, Calif., for instance, CBS paid $64,000 and it could have been on the air around the clock for all 12 days if it wanted. Host Walter Cronkite was afraid his voice would give out.

With the wrap-up of its new four-year TV deal with the network and cable carriers late yesterday, the NFL is realizing a 20 percent increase over the previous agreement to a barely comprehendible $4.3 billion. Whatever happened to the millions?

NFL owners were accused of being a bunch of cold-hearted, bottom-line Scrooges over the weekend when the most-expensive trinket in their yard sale, NFC games, was awarded to Fox Network over old soldier CBS. Then the owners flashed loyalty above and beyond by sticking with NBC as its AFC partner.

Believe that and we'll tell you another one.

There must have been a reason why the league didn't go with the late bid submitted by CBS since it was for more money than NBC offered.

The reason, says NBC's Dick Ebersol, was that he had a "gentlemen's agreement" as early as last Thursday after the NFL accepted the deal he proposed. He said the Dleague immediately informed Fox that the AFC deal was done. Fox would be allowed to bid only for NFC games -- and proceeded to do so.

Others say Ebersol later threatened to slap a lawsuit on the NFL if it did not stand by that gentlemen's agreement and ignore CBS's late bid, but Ebersol says such a thought never entered his mind.

It is irony of the first order that CBS ends up as the big loser in this synopsis. Fellow networks are still grumbling over the fact it was the Eye that first introduced the word "billion" to the vocabulary of professional sport team owners with its ridiculous $1.06 billion bid to capture the baseball contract four years ago.

A ballpark estimate is that CBS lost a total of $500 million on the baseball deal and, yearly, has been dropping $100 million on its pro football contract. So along comes Fox and betters its bid by $100 million, all but guaranteeing it goes in with an assured loss of $200 million per year. And wait until the bills for production costs start tumbling in.

But with these TV moguls, it seems to be little more than play money. What Fox is doing is laying out big dough not only to hold the new network kids on the block, Warner and Paramount, at bay but to latch onto a better class of affiliates than the weak UHF stations it has in too many large markets. With teams like the Giants, Bears, Rams, Eagles, Lions, Redskins, 49ers and Cowboys, representatives of the top TV markets, as the loss leader, the maneuver probably will work.

No sooner did elements of the deals with the networks and cables start filtering in when speculation began as to who would be out of work at CBS and where Fox would be heading to hire who and what to handle its coverage. It has been as if we are about to lose a national treasure if John Madden doesn't end up in a Fox television booth come next September.

Needless to say, Madden won't be showing up in any unemployment lines soon and the right way and wrong way of handling pro football is so well established now that it's not likely that Fox will embarrass itself with its coverage.

One of the peculiarities of the overall deal is that simultaneous with the announcement CBS had lost the NFC was word that ESPN and TNT had retained their eight-game Sunday night packages at the same fee, about $110 million per year.

Considering the Eye is out on Sunday afternoons and ABC is paying about $240 million for its "Monday Night Football" package, how come the league didn't solicit a bid from CBS for a Sunday night package?

See, it wasn't all money with these NFL guys.

While CBS comes out of this latest war hurting, the network now being without baseball, pro football and basketball, college football, horse racing and any bowls to speak of, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue took another big (deserved) shot.

Recall, it was the Tag-a-long man who, together with supposed television committee brain Art Modell (Cleveland), suggested the NFL owners give the beleaguered networks a rebate while agreeing to a two-year contract extension under the dictates of the previous pact.

Good call, Paul, that would have ended up costing the teams in the vicinity of a half-billion dollars over the next couple of years had they followed your counsel.

Not only will television continue to do just about all the underwriting for the hideous salaries the owners insist on RTC handing out to the players, but it also will delay anew what looms as inevitable in the great by-and-by -- pay-per-view.

Does this appear to be in conflict with TV's interest or what, since the networks all have tie-ins with cable, PPV, phone companies, satellites and just about anything else that constitutes a monopoly?

OK, all together now, Redskins games will be on Channel 45 next year . . . although it's still up in the air whether we'll remain a periphery market of Washington. Start flooding Fox with complaint mail.

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