TV deals an NFL hit, but buck will be passed Commercial time, fees for cable are set to rise

January 15, 1998|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN SPORTS MEDIA CRITIC

NEW YORK -- Between dinner time Monday and Tuesday, not far from Broadway, the NFL's television committee staged its own version of the play "Titanic," but this story had nothing to do with a ship.

Rather, the plot was how commissioner Paul Tagliabue and a group of football owners could entice network executives to chuck their good sense and throw billions of dollars at them.

This play, so far, has been a big financial hit for the NFL, to the tune of $17.6 billion over eight years from ABC, ESPN, CBS and Fox, though there are questions whether the networks will take a financial bath.

And that's just the first act. The ramifications of this week's events will be felt for years, and in this interactive age, the spectators will play an important part in the rest of the performance.

For example, in gaining the AFC package and getting back into football after four years on the sideline, CBS officials said they would add at least three more 30-second commercials per game, with Fox and ABC sure to follow suit, pushing the late Sunday game time to 4: 15 p.m.

Likewise, your friendly neighborhood cable operator is bound to raise rates to pass along the increase in subscriber fees he's going to get from ESPN, after it grabbed all the cable rights at an incredible $600 million annual cost.

Here's how the rest of the production looks to shake out.

ABC/ESPN: The NFL deal was the first big sign of the synergy between these companies, thanks to their corporate partner, Disney, which set out to capture the Sunday and Monday night packages together.

"We had a challenge on our hands. We now have exclusive rights to the NFL in prime time," ABC president Bob Iger said.

To make that happen, however, the company had to pay an extraordinary $1.15 billion annually, with ESPN paying more for the Sunday night cable package than ABC will for "Monday Night Football."

Steve Bornstein, head of ABC Sports and ESPN, said cable subscribers can expect to pay "modestly increased" rates for ESPN as a result of this deal, but he would not say how much on average the increase might be.

Bornstein also would not comment on how the "Monday Night Football" announcers would be affected, though there are rumors that ABC will make a play for John Madden as analyst, while dumping Frank Gifford and Dan Dierdorf.

Meanwhile, "Monday Night Football" will move its start time from 9 p.m. to 8: 15 p.m. and include a 15-minute pre-game show.

CBS: Now that CBS has the NFL back in hand after four years on the outside, the task for sports president Sean McManus and executive producer Terry Ewert is to assemble a team of announcers, producers, directors and technicians to get the games on the air.

They don't have to start completely from ground zero. A talented group of producers and directors stayed at CBS, and with announcers like Jim Nantz, Sean McDonough and Gus Johnson on staff, the network has a core to work with.

But they'll need more. The safe bet is that Nantz or NBC refugee Greg Gumbel will be host of the hourlong "NFL Today" pre-game show, with the other becoming the No. 1 play-by-play announcer, though TNT's Verne Lundquist, a former CBS announcer who will do figure skating next month for the network in the Winter Olympics, will be available.

Of course, CBS could try to return Pat Summerall and Madden to where it all began for them, but if Madden isn't available, former ESPN and NBC analyst Phil Simms would be a strong possibility as lead analyst, as well as Boomer Esiason if the Cincinnati Bengals' quarterback retires.

Fox: The network likely will have to fend off raids from CBS for its technical talent, many of whom worked for CBS before 1994.

And then there's the Madden question. If he leaves, Summerall almost certainly would go as well, either back to CBS where he could resume his golf and tennis schedule, or to retirement.

Matt Millen probably would become the No. 1 analyst, though there is scuttlebutt afloat that Summerall, Millen and Simms could be teamed together, if Madden leaves. Fox did announce yesterday that Terry Bradshaw, the cornerstone of its pre-game show, signed a new, five-year contract.

NBC: The big question of the week has been why NBC took what appears to be a foolish gamble, passing up the sure thing it had in the AFC to try for "Monday Night Football."

NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol yesterday defended the decision to pass up football, contending that, at the $500 million-per-year figure the league brought to him for the AFC package, his network would have suffered losses that it could not justify.

"I personally felt that the dollar figures here were reaching insane levels. To us, an intolerable risk was one where, in a good economy, you see losses of $150 million-$200 million a year. And I stress, that's in a good economy," Ebersol said. "We had to make the decision here, and we passed."

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