It's certainly a "change in the landscape" for network television, as one executive noted. What's less certain is whether the coup by Fox Broadcasting in taking 12 key stations from CBS and the other old-line networks will improve the wasteland that makes up so much of that landscape.
Fox, owned by international media mogul Rupert Murdock, has taken a giant leap toward network status. It has shaken up the three established commercial networks, particularly the current ratings leader, CBS. Acquisition of strong, established stations in 12 cities will give Fox a big boost in income. But what will the viewer get?
In the short run, viewers will get more of the entertainment fodder geared for older teens and young adults. One of Fox's new programs next season is "Wild Oats." Get the idea? For football fans drawn to Fox by National Football League games (wooed away earlier this year from CBS), there will be a sports sitcom titled "Hardball." In other words, more softball programming.
Still, the Murdock coup is a watershed event in the television business. Fox has a way to go before it truly becomes the nation's fourth commercial network, but it is progressing rapidly. Mr. Murdock, the Australian-born entrepreneur whose media empire ranges from U.S. and British papers to Asian satellite TV, estimates the new stations will shortly increase his cash flow by $100 million a year. That money will be diverted from someone else's revenues. The question is whose.
If the advertising dollars are taken away from cable TV and other media, Mr. Murdock may be strengthening over-the-air broadcasting in the long run, whatever temporary damage he does to CBS, ABC and NBC. Traditional broadcasters have seen their audiences slowly dwindle in recent years. To the extent Fox reverses that trend, all would benefit. If, however, Fox draws audiences from the old-line networks, it could hasten the restructuring of over-the-air broadcasting. The Big Three, after all, no longer dominate the in-home entertainment business the way they did 20 years ago.
Advertising dollars chase consumers with the most disposable income. But traditional broadcasters still gave some priority to // quality programming. If Mr. Murdock decides that is an essential feature of his network, the viewer could come out ahead.