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HOW MANY MESSAGES FOR THIS MEDIUM?
William Oscar Johnson
February 19, 1979
In what amounts to his annual State of the Game address, National Football League Commissioner Pete Rozelle addressed himself to a long-standing accusation—that network television is the true power behind pro football. "We do cooperate with TV in some respects," Rozelle said, "but overall I would say there's a pretty good balance. The print media accuse us of doing certain things as a convenience for the networks. I personally feel these things are a convenience for the fans. Sometimes things that are in the public interest also happen to be in a network's interest."
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February 19, 1979

How Many Messages For This Medium?

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In what amounts to his annual State of the Game address, National Football League Commissioner Pete Rozelle addressed himself to a long-standing accusation—that network television is the true power behind pro football. "We do cooperate with TV in some respects," Rozelle said, "but overall I would say there's a pretty good balance. The print media accuse us of doing certain things as a convenience for the networks. I personally feel these things are a convenience for the fans. Sometimes things that are in the public interest also happen to be in a network's interest."

This is true. It is also true that some things are more in the interest of the networks than the public. One of them was the introduction last fall of what might be called the two-minute bonus. Under this plan, the NFL allowed the networks to increase their allotment of commercials—those stirring messages from our sponsors—from 20 to 22 minutes for every game. The average TV game ran two hours and 50 minutes.

As for the public's interest, the only dividend from the two-minute bonus was a few more unnatural interruptions in the flow of a game. Unless one watches a football game only to determine which shaving cream sticks best to your palm, there is no public interest involved in scheduling more commercials.

As for the network interest—well.... In 1978 the average cost of a 30-second commercial on ABC's Monday Night Football was $85,000. This means that in 16 regular-season games (no playoffs), the two-minute bonus alone was worth $5.4 million to ABC. This is a high rate of network interest indeed. And there is an equally high rate of NFL interest, because all the extra commercials—plus two extra regular-season games and two extra playoff games—were added just so the league could extract more money from the networks, whose three separate four-year contracts, agreed to last year, amount to a stunning $650 million.

And speaking of public interest in pro football: it faded in 1978. Nobody is blaming the two-minute bonus, and no one is positive that the added telecasts resulted in overexposure. But the season ratings dipped on all three networks. ABC was off 4% with a 20.2 rating average, CBS was down 6% with a 14.9 and NBC was off 2% at 12.9. This count did not include the whopping Super Bowl rating of 47.1 (an estimated 104 million viewers).

It is true that ABC got caught with an uncommonly large number of dogs on Monday nights and that two of the three major markets ( New York and Chicago) had lousy teams. So perhaps the rating drop isn't a trend. Val Pinchbeck, the NFL's TV coordinator, says that 1977 was a record ratings year and that if one compares the 1978 figures with the average of the past three years, they do not fall short.

But if declining NFL ratings do not a significant trend make, the practice of squeezing more commercial time into football games and into every hour of network TV does. Most station owners are reluctant to knock TV's status quo, mainly because they are profiting from it so handsomely. However, the well-fed moguls of American TV can be outspoken, too, and among the most outspoken are executives of Westinghouse (Group W) Broadcasting. With nine radio stations and five major-market TV stations (two affiliated with CBS, two with NBC, one with ABC), Group W is the largest commercial broadcasting concern in the U.S. after the three networks. The company is led by tough and canny Donald H. McGannon, 58, a man so scathing in his views of certain network practices that the nicest word some network men have for him is "iconoclast."

For years McGannon has led a campaign to give local affiliates more control over network programming. At the moment they have none, even though they—not the networks—are federally licensed and legally responsible for serving the public fairly. McGannon says, "I don't think the role of the licensee should be one of a spigot that simply passes on the program. There should be discernment."

To that end Group W has petitioned the FCC for an inquiry into network-affiliate relationships, a petition that makes the networks very nervous. A favorite and continuing Group W complaint to the networks concerns the insidious proliferation of "clutter" (more commercials and more promotional claptrap) in every network hour. Until three or four years ago, the TV industry stood firm on a standard of six commercial minutes an hour as being acceptable both esthetically and financially. No more. Group W research shows that between 1975-76 and 1977-78 the number of commercial minutes an hour increased 42% and now is approaching eight an hour.

This is exactly what is happening as a result of the NFL decision to boost average commercial minutes above seven an hour. Group W attempted to head off the move by first announcing that it would refuse to carry extra commercials and then saying it would "cover off" all excessive ads by running public-service announcements instead. The networks responded with pure juggernaut tactics. "We were given an ultimatum by all three networks that they would not abide covering off any commercial, or part thereof, and that if we insisted on it, they would not feed us any NFL games," says Jay Francis, a Group W spokesman.

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