So how was it, football fans? Did you catch those moves Peter Falk put on Ann-Margret during The Cheap Detective last Thursday night, when ABC was supposed to be showing the Chiefs and Falcons? And how about Clint Eastwood in The Outlaw Josey Wales on Monday, when the Browns and Bengals were scheduled? No way the Cincinnati offensive line can mow down people the way Clint does. And weren't those quaint Canadian Football League games on NBC Sunday just something? For sure you noticed how the field was 10 yards too long and the teams had only three downs to get a first down? Can you believe it?
Kidding aside, the joke of this not-very-funny pro football season is on two groups: the viewers and the advertisers. On the other hand, neither the networks nor the NFL will suffer from the strike, at least if it only lasts a few weeks.
As predictably as San Francisco won the rerun of Super Bowl XVI shown on CBS on Sunday, ratings tumbled for the strange hash of fillers the networks have dished up in their pro football slots since the strike began. On Sept. 16, ABC's Thursday night game between Minnesota and Buffalo drew a 17.0 rating (percentage of TV homes tuned in), beating Hill Street Blues on NBC (15.5) and Magnum P.I. on CBS (15.6). A week later ABC's The Cheap Detective got a 10.9 and was trounced by the competition. Overnight ratings (New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles) for NBC's CFL games and CBS's Super Bowl replay averaged 5.8 and 4.3, respectively. The same week last season, NBC pulled in an 11.2 and CBS a 19.8 for pigskin vérité.
Should the strike continue, the substitute programming isn't likely to perk up. Beer and auto advertisers want men—tough, upscale, macho males—and nothing delivers them quite as well as football telecasts. TV, in fact, will go to great lengths before it substitutes even a bona fide live event in another sport—say last weekend's Southern Open golf tournament—for football. CBS, which wanted to add some major college football telecasts on Sunday afternoons, last week got the NCAA's blessing. But the other college football broadcasters, ABC and WTBS, Ted Turner's SuperStation, had veto power. WTBS, having failed to extract the concessions it wanted, said no, so as of Monday afternoon CBS was trying to line up Division III games for this Sunday. For the short term, two principles seem certain to govern this strike as it relates to the tube:
Rozelle Theorem No. 1: Television shall bail out the NFL. When the league negotiated its five-year, $2.076 billion worth of contracts with ABC, CBS and NBC last March, it insisted on including a provision under which TV would advance the NFL nearly $30 million in the first two weeks of a strike. Although the networks will subtract the money from next year's payments, each team will have a $1.07 million strike fund in the form of what amounts to an interest-free loan from television. The money, coupled with the fact that the owners aren't paying players' salaries, should more than offset lost revenues. Thanks, guys!
Network Theorem No. 1: Pro football strikes shall not hurt TV in the short run. The networks won't have to pay a nickel, other than the loan, for games not played. Meanwhile, most of the advertisers who came on board for NFL telecasts are likely to stay around for the replacement shows. Granted, the advertisers' payments will be reduced in proportion to the lower ratings that, for example, the CFL gets, but NBC's profit margin should remain healthy because it's paying only $100,000 for each CFL telecast, instead of the millions it shells out for its lineup of NFL games on a typical Sunday.
Says Mike Trager, a marketing consultant and former vice-president of sports programming for NBC, "After the ratings come out, everybody sits down and says, 'Was this a fair trade?' If it's not, the advertiser is either compensated with a money refund or offered other shows." The catch is that those other shows might not offer that upscale, beer-drinking, car-buying male. "Maybe Dallas does," says Jerry Solomon, who handles Anheuser-Busch for the advertising agency of D'Arcy McManus & Masius. "But if you buy into Dallas, you're paying for a lot of women. Not that women don't drink beer, but our audience is men."
As for the networks, there's the fear that a lengthy strike could break viewing patterns. That would mean that once play resumes, NFL games wouldn't get the ratings they did before the players walked. For now, though, the prevailing attitude on network row is, "What, me worry?" Says one TV sports executive, "Great! This is the first time in years I can take my family for a picnic on a Sunday afternoon."