Networks take positions for new NFL contract


The first weekend of on-field NFL competition is over, but a far more important round of competition is gearing up in New York high-rises, as network executives prepare to pitch for a piece of the league's television pie.

Earnest negotiations are expected to begin soon, if they haven't already, on a new television contract, as the current four-year, $4.4 billion pact expires after this season.

The jockeying already has started among the five current carriers (ABC, Fox, NBC, ESPN and Turner) and a rather sizable outsider, CBS. About the only thing that is certain is that, even at a time when all the NFL's outlets experienced a ratings decline last season, the league will get more money per season in the new deal, perhaps exceeding the $1.5 billion per-year mark.

"You'll see negotiations start fairly soon and they'll be rather lengthy and pretty intense," said Turner executive producer Mike Pearl.

The NFL's money will rise for a couple of reasons, the first being a practical one. The NFL has proved over time that it can deliver a larger overall audience and more of the coveted younger male demographic than any other sport, and in a day and age in which audiences are splintering and audience shares are declining, a product that produces regularly is valuable.

Secondly, CBS, which lost its NFL connection four years ago, after almost 40 years in the football telecasting business, is expected to pursue some portion of the football contract with the proverbial vengeance.

"I'm sure they'll come after anyone who's currently putting a picture of someone throwing a football," said Pearl, a former CBS producer.

Indeed, CNN/SI's Peter King reported over the weekend that Mel Karmazin, the No. 2 man in the new CBS hierarchy, has met with two members of the NFL's television committee, reportedly to express the network's interest in the Monday night package, currently held by ABC.

Of course, ABC, which has had "Monday Night Football" for its entire history, isn't expected to let it go quite that easily, especially with the power and influence of corporate parent Disney behind it.

"I can assure you that we hold it very dearly within this company, and that comes at the very top of the company, [Disney CEO] Michael Eisner," said announcer Frank Gifford. "It's a very integral part of the ABC lineup and, while I expect things to be very competitive, next year we will be doing 'Monday Night Football.' "

The folks at CBS, no doubt, thought that, too, before Dec. 7, 1993, when Fox pried the NFC away with a breathtaking $1.58 billion bid that permanently altered the landscape of sports television.

"I don't think you could be any more surprised than we were," said Fox's John Madden, who had been a CBS mainstay. "There was no one who saw that coming. Now, you know if someone doesn't step up, there will be someone who will step up."

CBS, which has become more aggressive in the industry since it was purchased by Westinghouse last year, wants very much to be that someone, though new sports division president Sean McManus is publicly playing down his company's chances.

And the conventional wisdom in the industry is that the other networks, given the fear instilledby CBS' failure to retain its rights after so long, would never allow such a fate to befall them.

That's probably true, but conventional wisdom could go right out the window if the price is right. The next few months will go a long way toward determining what that price is and who is willing to pay it.

'Truth Squad' debuts

From this perspective, it seems as though some of the most questionable journalism being practiced these days on television comes from the so-called NFL "insider" reporters. Quite often, they appear each week on the pre-game shows to float any manner of rumor they've heard without fear of being called on their "reports."

Well, along comes a new "Media Watch" feature called "The Truth Squad," and here's how it will work: Each week, we'll look at what the reporters (King, ESPN's Chris Mortensen, NBC's Will McDonough and the uncredited John Czarnecki of Fox) turn up and broadcast on their respective shows.

We'll then give their reports a reasonable amount of time to pan out, say, four weeks at a maximum, but sooner if their stories bear out or fall apart before then. At the end of the regular season, we'll tell you who got it right most often, and who threw more stuff on the wall to see what would stick.

The biggest news from Sunday's shows involved the contract status of Buffalo Bills defensive lineman Bruce Smith. Both King and McDonough reported that a deal between Smith and Bills owner Ralph Wilson was not done, with King citing agent Leigh Steinberg and McDonough using Wilson as his source.

However, ESPN's Mark Malone reported during the opening of "NFL Countdown" that the deal was done, and anchor Chris Berman provided the deal's details halfway through the show, supposedly informing Smith. Fox reported the deal near the end of its show.

Fox, NBC and ESPN also reported that new San Francisco 49ers defender Kevin Greene and his former team, Carolina, are at odds over $300,000 in fines Greene reportedly owes the Panthers. Mortensen said the case would head to a special arbitrator. We'll keep an eye out.

Serve and volley

In the face of talk that tennis is on the decline, CBS reports that its U.S. Open coverage is on the upswing.

Sunday's seven-hour telecast from Flushing Meadow drew ratings that were up 53 percent from the previous year, which is pretty impressive given that most of it ran head-to-head with the opening weekend of the NFL.

Pub Date: 9/02/97

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad