The tradition of watching Sunday afternoon pro football took a startling turn yesterday, when the National Football League announced that Rupert Murdoch's Fox Network -- the network of Al Bundy and Bart Simpson -- had outbid CBS for the right to televise all National Football Conference games, beginning next season.
Joe Browne, an NFL spokesman, confirmed the multi-year deal, but would not say how much money Fox paid for the package. However, WTEM Radio in Washington reported that Fox had outbid CBS by $100 million for the rights to the NFC games.
The amount of the winning bid was not immediately known.
By switching networks, the NFL possibly has ended a relationship with CBS that goes back to the 1950s and has given Fox its first regular sports programming.
Mr. Browne did not say whether CBS still was bidding for the American Football Conference portion of the NFL television contract. NBC currently holds the rights to AFC games, and ABC has been televising "Monday Night Football." In addition, cable networks ESPN and TNT share Sunday night games.
(In Baltimore, the Fox affiliate is Channel 45, WBFF. In Washington, it's Channel 5, WTTG.)
Fox apparently offered more than the average yearly rights fee being paid by CBS ($265 million) and NBC ($188 million). It is not known if CBS bid more than its current contract.
Citing a source in New York, the Los Angeles Times reported today that CBS has submitted a bid for the AFC package, but NBC has 72 hours to match that bid.
Fox has made previous forays into NFL talks. But this time, the fourth network picked the perfect moment to get involved. CBS and NBC have been losing money on professional football, with NBC expected to end up at least $88 million in the red this year. Together, CBS and NBC will lose more than $300 million for the full length of the four-year contracts, which conclude at the end of this season.
ABC, a virtual lock to retain "Monday Night Football," has lost substantial money, too, but "MNF" is a crucial, highly rated prime-time series that ABC cannot abandon.
Dick Ebersol, president of NBC Sports, had made it clear that he wanted a risk-free deal with the NFL. So has CBS' Neal Pilson, Mr. Ebersol's counterpart.
Fox's offer -- coming from a network whose sports programming has been largely confined to a raunchy live episode of "In Living Color" opposite CBS' Super Bowl halftime show in 1992 -- apparently invigorated team owners, who have looked warily, even askance, at past network pleas for financial relief.
More owners than ever have paid eight- and nine-figure sums for their teams, and free agency has increased player costs, so the need for more money is paramount. With CBS and NBC in a mood to pay less, not more, Fox's entry is even more welcome and confirms the NFL's value in many owners' minds.
Hurting CBS and NBC, too, is that the NFL television committee is no longer headed by traditionalist Art Modell, the owner of the Cleveland Browns, who quit the position earlier this year.
Now, with harder-line owners such as Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, Pat Bowlen of the Denver Broncos and Norman Braman of the Philadelphia Eagles leading the committee, old-line tradition likely will fall victim to the need for extra cash.
The NFL ends up with a 140-station Fox Network that has 120 UHF stations, which transmit weaker signals than those emitted by CBS and NBC's network of stations. Beyond that, Fox doesn't have the grandest reputation for quality and has no sports department.
Why was Fox bidding for the NFL?
* It is a pre-emptive strike against the nascent efforts of Paramount and Warner Bros. to build networks and snare some of Fox's affiliates.
* Adding football automatically increases the credibility of Fox's stations, and helps them get carriage on more local cable systems.
* The NFC package, which is stronger than the AFC's because of the presence of bigger markets, would be a strong lead-in for Fox's Sunday prime-time schedule.
But why would Fox spend a sum that almost would ensure big losses? Fox probably looks at the NFL as a capital investment, not just a rights fee. Any losses would be written off as the cost of doing business and building a network.
The question now is whether CBS will want NBC's AFC schedule, with its smaller markets. If the NFC package didn't make financial sense to CBS, would the AFC's?
If CBS loses professional football, it has a gaping hole: It would have no football, no baseball, no pro basketball. It would have the 1994 Winter Olympics, college basketball, U.S. Open tennis and golf tournaments.
NBC may not want to live without football, but it can. Without football, the network still has the National Basketball Association, a piece of baseball with ABC, Notre Dame football, golf and the 1996 Summer Olympics.