CBS' shocking loss of National Football League games to the upstart Fox network will have repercussions far beyond forcing football fans to switch channels on Sunday afternoons. Fox's successful $1.6 billion bid to carry the NFL's National Football Conference (NFC) will lead to more local newscasts and perhaps new or recycled Sunday programs for women.
Although Fox could lose more than a half billion dollars over the four years of its contract, the network intends to use the prestige of the NFL to encourage its struggling affiliates to do more news. Only 34 of 142 Fox affiliates currently air some type of local newscast.
Most of these are half-hour-long shows at 10 p.m. on the East and West Coasts and 9 p.m. in the Midwest. Some stations, including Fox-owned ones in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, also produce successful morning news programs that stretch as long as three hours. But most affiliates, including a Fox-owned station in the football hotbed of Dallas, have no newscasts or air only sporadic briefs and updates.
"I'm now working with getting news started at 11 stations," says Joe Saitta, vice president of affiliate news, "and by the end of the year we may have 50 stations up and running with local newscasts. They know they have to have local news to be a complete and competitive TV station in their markets."
Managers at affiliates already airing newscasts agree with Saitta that the NFL contract will enhance their news image.
"Our 10 o'clock news has been building steadily since we started it in June 1991," says Steve Marks, general manager at Baltimore's WBFF. "Football opens many promotional opportunities to us, exposing us to an audience that may not have seen our news before. This also increases the possibility of adding another newscast earlier in the day."
Although Fox has no current plans for a full-fledged network newscast, it is offering its affiliate stations more national stories and features aimed at the Fox audience, which is younger than those watching the big three.
The main obstacle in Fox's effort to bolster its affiliates' news offerings has been the stations' weak signals. Most Fox affiliates and owned stations are located on television's Ultra High Frequency (UHF) band above channel 13. The UHF signal doesn't reach as far as the Very High Frequency (VHF) band, where most affiliates of the other networks are found. Cable TV, which does not depend on signal strength, has helped Fox overcome this hurdle.
With the NFL contract, Fox is trying to upgrade its affiliate network by seeking stations with stronger signals and signing up affiliates in new markets. It's also trying to lure affiliates from other networks to switch to Fox, especially CBS stations in markets that don't have a Fox competitor.
"There was a lot of conversation about that at the CBS affiliate meeting" in mid-January, says Jeff Rosser, general manager at KDFW in Dallas. "Fox has talked to a lot of CBS affiliates about carrying NFC games. But while they might be interested in the football, I did not hear a single [CBS] affiliate say they were thinking of becoming a Fox affiliate. CBS continues to offer more successful prime time programming year-round and that carries far more weight than Sunday afternoon football."
Rosser's station and other CBS affiliates in cities with NFC teams have the most to lose in the Fox football coup, both in revenue and prestige.
"A station like ours in Baltimore won't be hurt too much and we'll recoup easily," says Phil Stolz, general manager of WBAL. "But in markets like Washington and Dallas, there is an unbelievable financial loss. You have to remember that these stations have been getting a program almost for free and selling their own commercials. Now, they'll have to pay for the replacement. This will cost into the millions."
Rosser admits KDFW's revenue loss is "considerable" but says it is "more an emotional loss than anything because the Dallas Cowboys are such an important part of what we offer the community." Furthermore, he is "very confident that we and CBS will develop ways to make up for the revenue."
One method is to counterprogram between 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. with shows that attract women and children rather than the predominantly male audience of football. Affiliate stations will fill the 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. slot on a local basis and the network will feed programs after that.
Sports, such as figure skating and gymnastics, that appeal to women will surely be part of the mix, as they have been on ABC over the years. Newsmagazine shows and children's programs also could be included. The end result is that many viewers, not just football fans, will be changing channels this fall. l