CBS’s Hail Mary

High atop Mile High Stadium in Denver, protected from the brutal 50-mile-per-hour January winds by the sturdy plate glass of a skybox, CBS Sports president Sean McManus stares in disbelief at a TV tuned to his competitor, Fox. McManus doesn’t care who wins the NFC Championship game between Minnesota and Atlanta. His dark-brown eyes are narrowing because of the pace at which the Vikings are blowing the game: very, very slowly.

To football fans, it’s a thrilling cliffhanger. To McManus, it’s like being the victim of a hanging: With the Vikings-Falcons game stretching into overtime, 50 million viewers will remain glued to Fox. Down on the field below McManus, the Denver Broncos and the New York Jets are thirteen minutes away from kickoff. This game, for the AFC Championship, was expected to be the highest-rated telecast for CBS Sports all season, a triumphant conclusion to the first year of a $4 billion, eight-year gamble on the AFC that McManus and CBS made last January.

Standing next to McManus is NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. “Do you want to push the kickoff back five minutes?” Tagliabue asks.

McManus doesn’t want to delay the game so long that the Broncos and Jets grow stiff. But he’s also deeply worried about Morley Safer, Roma Downey, and Sean Penn. How late can the Broncos-Jets game start without cutting into the CBS prime-time audience for 60 Minutes, Touched by an Angel, and Dead Man Walking? McManus consults with one of the other football fans in the skybox: his boss, CBS Television head Leslie Moonves.

The kickoff is delayed for ten minutes. Then John Elway and Bill Parcells can wait no longer. The game, with its $600,000 ads, will start with only blood relatives of the players switching over to CBS.

Suddenly, the Falcons kick a field goal. Game over. The two broadcasts overlap for a mere 90 seconds, CBS beats the ratings for last year’s AFC Championship game, on NBC, and Della Reese warms hearts. Everyone gets a happy ending. Well, except Jets fans.

McManus and CBS, in fact, are quietly ecstatic. In January 1998, they were ridiculed for spending more than double the money that NBC had paid for NFL rights. That CBS broke even on its first NFL season is a stunning success story in an era of lowered network expectations, and the soft-spoken, Duke-educated 43-year-old McManus is now the reigning smart guy in TV sports.

Oh, and football also managed to save the network. Talk that CBS was on the verge of being sold was epidemic before the NFL deal kicked in. Now, after using football to promote its prime-time lineup, CBS has jumped to No. 1 in the Nielsens. How powerful is football’s influence? Becker, starring Ted Danson, is a hit.

“The benefits of football have been fantastic for CBS,” says Salomon Smith Barney analyst Paul Sweeney. “They’ll still lose money at the network level, but at the local level they’re making a tremendous amount, and they’ve had
a big demographic improvement by bringing in young male viewers. The stock price is up, too. It’s certainly possible CBS could be sold, but it’s no longer imminent.”

No network had ever leveraged its nightly slate so completely on sports before. It worked so well that CBS is mulling an attempt to outbid Fox for the rights to Major League Baseball next year. “As ratings in network television continue to diminish,” McManus says optimistically, “sports will diminish less, and sports will always have a very important, large core audience.”

Sitting in his twenty-fifth-floor office, overlooking a snowy Sixth Avenue three days before the AFC Championship, McManus details how hard his ad reps, producers, and talking heads worked to sell the NFL on CBS. And then he admits they all had to get lucky. “We’re dependent on the quality of the games,” he says. “We can control the quality of the telecast; that’s our responsibility. But Fox, for instance, couldn’t control the fact that the Yankees won the World Series in four games. That had an enormous negative financial impact, and it had nothing to do with their planning, their talent, their ability. It’s the chance you take. I have no control over how good the Jets-Denver game is gonna be.”

That, however, is about to change. For four decades, networks have invested millions, then waited for the leagues to deliver scintillating entertainment. ABC took a beating on last year’s lame Monday Night Football schedule. NBC, shut out of the NFL, thought it had made safe, if pricey, bets on basketball and the Olympics – only to be dealt a lockout (the NBA), the retirement of a god (Michael Jordan), and two corruption scandals (Salt Lake City and Sydney). With the stakes in the billions, TV is looking to reduce the risk.

There have already been instances of media moguls tweaking their on-field product: The recent signing of pitcher Kevin Brown to a $15 million-a-year deal was widely interpreted as a move by Rupert Murdoch, the new owner of the Dodgers, to deliver a sexier TV show for his Fox network, at least every fifth night, and propel the team into the revenue-rich promised land of the playoffs.

Murdoch’s maneuver may soon look timid. Media companies will push beyond docile ownership of the Mighty Ducks and Hawks and Cubs. The future is active control of entire leagues by entertainment companies. TNT (a tentacle of Time Warner) and NBC, the bitter losers in 1998’s bidding war for NFL television rights, are planning to launch their own pro-football league. “It’s gonna happen,” says TNT sports executive Harvey Schiller. He’ll begin meeting with potential sponsors and cities in the next couple of months.

The CBS-NFL deal shows how valuable a decent football season can be to a struggling prime-time lineup. Imagine the profits if CBS could increase the percentage of gripping Sunday afternoons by canceling lousy teams as fast as it dropped Buddy Faro.

“Clearly, the haves and the have-nots in baseball, for instance, have created a real problem,” says Bryant Gumbel, the CBS and HBO journalist who began his career at NBC Sports. “If you don’t have money, you’re not a contender. So do we wind up consolidating the weak teams? Does a G.E., if it is broadcasting baseball, turn around and say, ‘You know what, I’m gonna buy the Royals, the Brewers, and the Reds and we’ll put them into one team, and we’ll play in all three cities, because it gives us, the network, a more viable TV product’? Michael Jordan was not far removed from that idea during the NBA lockout when he turned to Abe Pollin, the owner of the Washington Wizards, and said, ‘Look, if you can’t afford it, get out.’ “

Fans should be thrilled. The worst problem in pro sports isn’t greedhead owners and bonehead athletes; it’s a surplus of rotten teams. Scripting real sports as if they were a Stone Cold Steve Austin match would be a disaster. But c’mon: Who really wants to sit through Islanders games?

CBS’s Hail Mary