NFL puts CBS on sidelines for first time since 1956


Now, CBS knows what it's like to be Baltimore.

Yesterday, the network that ushered in the big-bucks age of televised football with the 1958 Baltimore Colts-New York Giants title game was cast aside by the National Football League.

The NFL awarded NBC the final portion of its four-year broadcast package -- rights to the American Football Conference games -- capping a week of frantic bargaining that saw the upstart Fox television network shake up the world of televised sports.

Call it Married to the NFL, for about $4.3 billion.

"This marks the end of the three-network dance for sports," NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol said. "It will probably be a four-network dance from now on."

NBC retains the AFC and gobbles up the 1996 and 1998 Super Bowls for a price tag believed to be around $880 million.

zTC The rest of the previously announced four-year television pacts split the NFL like this:

* Fox grabs the National Football Conference from CBS and the 1997 Super Bowl for $1.58 billion.

* ABC retains Monday night football, regains the Pro Bowl and televises the 1995 Super Bowl for $950 million.

* ESPN and TNT split a Sunday night cable package for $450 million each.

Add it all up, and the NFL finds itself with a package that is nearly 20 percent richer than the old four-year deal of $3.62 billion.

Not bad for a league that endured years of carping from executives at CBS and NBC, which lost a combined $300 million on the 1990-1993 broadcast package.

Finally, say goodbye to CBS, out of the pro football business for the first time since 1956.

Not even a last-ditch bid of $250 million a year, or nearly $30 million more than NBC's top offer, could keep CBS from relinquishing pro football rights.

Apparently, the NFL made good on a "gentleman's agreement" with Mr. Ebersol to honor NBC's last offer made Thursday and approved yesterday by the league's television committee.

"It's a terrible disappointment. Sadness. And it comes as something of a surprise," CBS Sports president Neal Pilson told the Associated Press.

In a letter to affiliates, Mr. Pilson wrote that "the sports television industry is cyclical," and "major events change hands with some degree of frequency."

"Obviously, we would have preferred to stay with NFL football, but that decision has been made," Mr. Pilson added. He closed, "We must go on from here."

So, too, may CBS broadcasters, among the most recognizable men in America.

Pat Summerall, the network's pro football voice for four decades, told CBS News, "I can't see myself in a living room somewhere with my feet up."

Analyst John Madden told the San Francisco Examiner, "If it's time to move on, it's time to move on and I'll consider the options when they come up."

CBS affiliates also face the prospect of having to counter-program against pro football for the first time since Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House.

"It's a world of change," said Emerson Coleman, director of broadcast operations for WBAL, the local CBS affiliate. "And it's a new day."

The new day was made possible by Rupert Murdoch, the Fox television founder who gambled more than a billion dollars that ,, the NFL would give his network prestige and increased viewership, even though analysts expect him to lose $155 million a year on the package.

"The most important thing is that football, for three or four decades, has been the strongest sports property," Mr. Ebersol said. "It's a good way in a 500-channel television environment to be well represented."

Mr. Ebersol and NBC were unwilling to risk losing the rights to the NFL. They acted quickly after being informed by the NFL on Dec. 10 that bidding for the NFC and its larger-market teams would be upped to $300 million a year, and the rights for the AFC teams would start at $210 million a year.

"This deal wasn't about where we were in the past," Mr. Ebersol said. "It was about a new world. We decided to put together a deal to reflect that reality."

Mr. Ebersol said "if CBS came in early with a number higher than $210 million, it would have won."

Instead, CBS came in late and last and was cast out into the cold after nearly 40 years of televising NFL games.

And nobody even packed a moving van.

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