Television's wheel of fortune Blockbuster week: Free-agency trend leads to huge contracts for NFL football and 'ER.'

January 18, 1998

ONCE, YOU HARDLY needed a television guide to know which shows could be found where. The stations were fixed on the dial ever since you watched your the first "Romper Room." One network always carried football, another brought you Jim McKay's Olympics as assuredly as spring follows winter. Families huddled around the "tube" and took comfort in finding Chet and David or Uncle Walter at the same time in the same place on the TV dial, night after night.

That era has vanished -- from television and from life itself. The breathtaking sums secured by the National Football League ($18 billion) and the producers of "ER," the hit hospital drama ($850 million), resulted from the potential shift of allegiance of those programs. The NFL proved some years ago that it not only could survive, but flourish, vaulting among networks after CBS fumbled its historic football franchise to Rupert Murdoch's Fox network. The loss must have hurt because CBS was willing to pay $4 billion to wrest back football, this time from NBC. That network, still mourning Jerry Seinfield's decision to end his cult hit comedy, wasn't about to cough up "ER."

The cost and rewards of free agency are evident everywhere in American society these days. They are reflected in professional athletes -- some of them marginal performers -- getting millions of dollars to hop from city to city. They echo in the business world, where companies abandon long-established corporate headquarters in favor of lucrative offers in other states hungry for jobs. The notion of working for one employer for a lifetime is fading as fast as a Kodak moment in Rochester, N.Y.

A business that can generate such huge payouts as television did this past week is potent. But it is a sign of slippage that the medium is anchored by entertainment as narrowly focused as football and "ER." Actor George Clooney may be adorable, but will we recall "ER" as warmly in 20 or 30 years as we do "I Love Lucy"? When was the last time co-workers massed around the office water cooler to dissect "ER"? You would think $13 million an episode should buy at least that much.

Pub Date: 1/18/98

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