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Fox TV's NFL coup a boon to Baltimore affiliate


The day after CBS Inc. punted the rights to televise National Football League games for the next four years, Steven Marks was sitting on TV Hill in Baltimore thinking that what had landed in his lap was a pretty fair catch indeed.

The beauty of the Fox network's $1.58 billion deal to televise National Football Conference games for affiliates like Baltimore's WBFF-45, where Mr. Marks is general manager, is that the affiliates don't contribute a dime to the whopping rights payment that has led CBS to predict the Fox network will lose a half-billion dollars on the deal.

"We would certainly like to think [the NFL deal] would enhance the value of the station," Mr. Marks said. "That's demonstrated by the amount of money it takes to get the product."

For affiliates, the fun is just beginning.

"I think it will be great for BFF; I'm not sure it will be great for the Fox network," said Bill Porter, senior vice president of media services for Richardson, Myers & Donofrio Inc., an advertising agency in Baltimore.

But the fun at WBFF is matched by the angst at nearby WBAL-TV, Baltimore's CBS affiliate. After years of high Sunday afternoon football ratings and advertising rates to match, the Hearst Corp.-owned station is just beginning to plan life without the NFL.

"In the same time period next year, we'll be charging a lot less" for advertising spots, said Philip Stolz, vice president and general manager of WBAL-TV. The difference in ad rates between Sunday afternoons with and without football is "thousands vs. hundreds."

It boils down to this: WBAL draws about a 13 rating and a 28 share for a November NFC game -- that means 13 percent of Baltimore-area households are watching WBAL, and 28 percent of the sets in use are tuned to the game. Fox's Sunday afternoon movies draw a 3 or 4 rating and "get hammered among the male demographic," said Mr. Marks.

The adult male audience is especially coveted by major advertisers such as beer companies, razor makers and auto manufacturers that buy time on football broadcasts in droves.

WBAL has not had to pay the CBS network for the NFL games either. What the network got was the right to sell all but 12 or 13 of the commercial spots in each game. WBAL broadcasts about 30 games a season, plus playoffs. The affiliate got to sell the dozen spots, which WBAL said could range in price from $1,500 for an early-season contest to $10,000 for a playoff game other than the Super Bowl.

Mr. Marks said Fox has not yet told its affiliates how many spots they will have the right to sell on football games. But he and other experts said Fox gives more prime-time commercial slots to affiliates than do more established rivals CBS, ABC and NBC, as part of the network's strategy to find and keep affiliates.

Fox will likely get NFL ratings similar to CBS', and affiliates like WBFF will get prices for ads approaching those on WBAL, said Dave Robinson, media director at W. B. Doner & Co., an ad agency that represents local football advertisers such as the Mid-Atlantic Milk Marketing Association and the Baltimore-area Ford dealers.

"We subscribe to the theory that people are loyal to programs and not stations," he said. He pointed to the ratings success of NFL games on cable stations such as ESPN and Turner Network Television, which he said can pull ratings as high as 7 or 8 on networks that usually must hustle to lure 1 percent or 2 percent of possible prime-time viewers.

Others are not sure NFL ratings won't be lower on UHF Fox-affiliated stations such as Channel 45, which are harder for distant viewers who don't have cable TV to pick up clearly than VHF stations such as Channel 11.

Revenue coming directly from football game ads may not be the DTC only benefit WBFF will get from the NFL deal. Analysts said the deal may have a spillover effect on Fox stations' prestige and a possible impact as a lead-in for Fox's Sunday night lineup. It may also give the network a chance to promote shows airing on other nights.

Mr. Marks said an increase of one ratings point for a prime time show like "Martin" or "Married With Children" means WBFF can charge an extra $300 per commercial.

"The Fox network is willing to take that loss [on the football coverage itself] and make it up on other programs" that will be helped by the football games, Mr. Robinson said.

"ABC established itself as a major network with Wide World of Sports, and CBS went from No. 3 to No. 1 on the coattails of its baseball contract," said Drew Marcus, a media analyst for Alex. Brown Inc. in New York.

CBS also recently gave up the rights to major league baseball, though it retains such major sports events as the Winter Olympics and the NCAA basketball tournament.

But Mr. Stolz is skeptical of the strength of any spillover effect.

"The major part of Sunday night [when CBS tops the national ratings] rests with '60 Minutes,' not with the football package," he said.

" '60 Minutes' has not always had the benefit of a football game lead-in."

The WBAL manager said the planning for new Sunday programming is just beginning.

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