The Tube: Football Fallout

As the NFL lockout lurches on and throws the upcoming season into question, it’s important to draw attention to the real victims of this bitter labor dispute. Through no fault of their own, television executives stand to lose their top prime-time moneymaker. FOX will lose close to $1 billion in ad revenue if the football season shuts down and CBS will drop $825 million. NBC, meanwhile, makes $850 million a year from its “Sunday Night Football” franchise. With executives slated to unveil their next fall schedule to potential ad buyers at the May “Upfronts,” we have to wonder: How can damaged television networks possibly recover?

It’s hard to imagine that anything can compensate for the loss of an entire football season. In the short term at least, all three football-carrying networks will take an unprecedented hit. But, of the three, NBC emerges as the network most likely to offset its NFL lockout deficits.

In the wake of NBC Universal’s January merger with Comcast, legendary NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol gains some exciting new properties to work with. Using Comcast-owned cable channels, he can take NBC Sports in lucrative new directions, yielding long-term profits that will eventually white out most of this year’s inevitable red ink.

Take the Golf Channel, for instance. Co-founded by Arnold Palmer in 1995, the Golf Channel has long been one of Comcast’s most overlooked properties. But in the last few years, golf fandom has spread like wildfire through the American middle class. In partnering with the Golf Channel, NBC Sports can reach a khaki-clad cross-section of the viewing public hungry for swing tips and PGA Tour results. Ebersol can elevate golf coverage to the realm of classical theatre, the same way he packaged “NBA on NBC” games back in the 90s.

Ebersol is a rare broadcasting genius. For the last twenty-two years, he has produced NBC sporting events with quality, taste and epic undertones. He appeals to our love of history and makes us feel like we’re watching something important. This guy turned the Winter Olympics, of all things, into must-see television. Every four years, housewives across the country talk about “two-man luge” like it’s The Bridges of Madison County.

While other TV-sports executives try to produce action movies, Ebersol writes drama. Remember his NBA pregame shows? Scottie Pippen and Karl Malone seemed like Cassius and Brutus. Narrator Bob Costas perfectly complimented Ebersol’s playwriting style: Professorial. Paternal. Profound.

God, can you imagine what Ebersol could do with the Masters tournament?

Or, for that matter, with a Boston Bruins hockey game? The NBC-Comcast merger also gives Ebersol the Versus Network, with its exclusive NHL broadcasting rights. Sure, hockey isn’t exactly the young people’s favorite these days, but it does have a precedent for success. In the early 90s, when Wayne Gretzky played for Los Angeles, NHL ratings ran neck-in-neck with major league baseball. Ebersol can make hockey relevant again, the same way he gets people to care about Triple Crown horse races. Magnify the characters and glorify the stakes.

Many of the provisions in the NBC-Comcast merger, insiders suspect, were actually designed specifically to give Ebersol the tools to diversify his brand. He’s a good man to trust. In the long run, NBC Sports will be fine. CBS and FOX, however, won’t be so lucky.

Thirty-something FOX Sports president Eric Shanks (known mainly for his invention of the “yellow line” first-down marker on NFL broadcasts) has a lot of problems on his plate. Unlike NBC, which transmits only one prime-time game per week during the season, FOX airs every single NFC contest on a regional basis, including playoff games. If the lockout doesn’t resolve itself by May, when Shanks gives his Upfront presentation to advertisers, FOX will immediately lose giant sums of money, regardless of whether or not the season ends up getting played. Some advertisers might bail on Shanks permanently, lowering “NFL on FOX” ad rates for subsequent seasons. With weak cable-channel affiliates and a marketing plan predicated entirely on its NFL coverage, FOX Sports might bleed to death if the lockout continues. Considering the relish with which Rupert Murdoch grants severance packages, Shanks might soon find himself in a brand new job, drawing his yellow lines on insurance sales reports.

CBS Sports chief Sean McManus will fare a little better, but not much. A Les Moonves protégé who successfully negotiated AFC broadcasting rights after the 2004 season, McManus never bothered to diversify, focusing his full attention on football. He was counting on one more lucrative season and an easy renegotiation process when his NFL contract expires after the 2011 campaign. But if the season gets wiped out, the NFL will demand more money from networks in the long term, in order to compensate for its losses. CBS Sports doesn’t have much extra money to offer. McManus, like Shanks, will then have only one wish: that his last name could be “Ebersol.”

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