The Great NFL Heist: How Fox Paid for and Changed Football Forever

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    From The Ringer:

    The Great NFL Heist: How Fox Paid for and Changed Football Forever
    An oral history of the most important deal in sports TV history, when Rupert Murdoch and Fox stole the NFL and John Madden out from under the Big Three networks, created the modern pregame show, invented a new way to see football, and launched a television empire

    The strangest thing about Joe Buck and Troy Aikman calling an NFL game for Fox is how normal it feels. Twenty-five years ago this month, Fox took over pro football. It didn’t feel normal. It felt like an unnatural cultural event. Bart Simpson was going to do play-by-play, and Australian billionaire Rupert Murdoch would cackle as he took over a sacred rite of American life.

    In December 1993, Murdoch did what our tech overlords are allegedly going to do in a few years. Murdoch wrote a $1.6 billion check to drive eyeballs to his new media company. A few weeks later, Murdoch paid a smaller but still huge sum to hire CBS’s John Madden. The rise of Fox Sports wasn’t destined to be an underdog tale, like the ESPN origin story. Murdoch was exploiting the vulnerabilities of the old networks as a way of gaining his own credibility in the United States.


    “You can not operate in this room unless you believe that you are Superman, and whatever happens, you’re capable of solving the problem.” – Gene Kranz

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    Now…a from-the-local-station-trenches story from the night of the very first Fox NFL game. You think Rupert was playing fast and loose with the rules? You’ve never met my old boss Bill. (Zloth might have heard this story before, probably the day after it happened.)

    As I’ve said on many an occasion in the past, not only were we the market’s only Fox affiliate (the only one between Little Rock and Tulsa), we were a low-power station, or more properly a chain of low-powered stations. Anything went. The station was too cheap to pay the license for library music of its own; I’d wind up bringing in Peter Gabriel and Split Enz CDs and using obscure deep cuts as background music for commercials and promos. Super weird practices were the norm [LINK]. It’s kind of amazing that we weren’t facing a lawsuit every week, except that we were:

    1. in Arkanasas
    2. low-power, so hardly anyone could see us
    3. fortunate enough to be pulling this crap in the days before Youtube and, indeed, for the part of the country we were in, the internet in general

    OK, so…to set the stage.

    The show we had on at 6:30 weeknights at the time Fox took NFL coverage was Roseanne. It was very popular in nightly strip syndication, and it commanded a decent ad rate – especially the last commercial break before Fox’s prime time programming took over, called the Adjacency since it was adjacent to network programming.

    Bill and his sales team decided they wanted to command top dollar for the Adjacency that would be running into Fox’s first NFL coverage. Not unreasonable. Also, they decided the Adjacency should be bigger that night, so they could demand more $$$ from more advertisers. All of a sudden, all of Roseanne’s generous two-minute commercial breaks during the first half of the show were chopped down to 30 seconds; while the commercials were rolling, the tape operator – the most experienced and unflappable tape op on the payroll was scheduled for that evening, so for “the tape operator” read “me” – had to recue the Roseanne tape manually to the next segment of show.

    Even during the show, the sales guys were selling the Adjacency. In the middle of the second act, I got a phone call from across the building: the first time there’s a natural pause in the show, roll your next 30-second break and recue the tape to the middle of the next segment of the show.

    I repeated for clarification what my interpretation of this was: you want me to chop this segment of show in half, and then skip roughly 50% of the last segment of show and abruptly start there? The answer was a very curt “yes”, and then I was hung up on.

    MaxWell okay then. I did as instructed. Huge developments in the story were skipped over in the name of More Commercials At The End. As far as the folks at home could tell…well, hey, I was pretty good at my job. It was almost seamless.

    In the middle of what was already a savagely truncated final segment of Roseanne, another call from Bill’s office: traffic is headed your way with a new list of commercials to add to the Adjacency. I sputtered a bit. “You mean we’re going to be rolling commercials over the beginning of the football coverage?” I asked.

    “No,” said the clearly annoyed voice on the other end. “As soon as you get the spot playback system reprogrammed to add the extra spots, go to commercial immediately.”

    In other words: Roseanne is over, and we don’t really give a shit about Roseanne anyway, despite it being a consistent bright point in our otherwise dismal ratings. As soon as the playback system is reprogrammed, commence an eight-minute block of commercials leading up to the game.

    MaxWhat our ratings were for that first NFL game on Fox, I never found out. I suspect they weren’t great for at least the first half-hour because we’d gone out of our way to run endless commercials and make it look as though we were experiencing technical difficulties on the biggest night ever. (Face it, that’s how the folks at home, not privy to the behind-the-scenes bullcrap, had to be interpreting the bizarre butchering of Roseanne.)

    And that, my friends, is the story of the Adjacency to End All Adjacencies.

    (For more stories from this station…well…there’s a whole section of my blog devoted to that.)

    • This reply was modified 5 months, 3 weeks ago by Earl Earl.
    • This reply was modified 5 months, 3 weeks ago by Earl Earl.
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