Fox Broadcasting Co. kicked off its rookie season of telecasting NFL games with a powerful ratings performance that surprised advertisers and competitors alike.
It was a boon for Fox, but the unexpected showing proved a stinging "I told you so" to CBS. The Tiffany network lost the rights to broadcast the league's National Football Conference games last December when a bidding war for the contract ended with Fox's eye-popping $1.6 billion wager.
A sore CBS publicly trashed Fox last month after its rival's first pre-season telecast: "Fox football debut runs 20% below comparable CBS game last season," a news release said.
But CBS was silent after the regular season's Labor Day weekend opening.
Fox's Game 1, according to Nielson Media Research, earned an 11.1 rating/30 share. In 1993, CBS' first game got a 9.1 rating/26 share. Fox's Game 2 was also higher, with a 9.1 rating/23 share vs. an 8.4 rating/22 share for CBS a year ago.
Fox can take some of the credit for those results. An NFL promotional campaign helped viewers locate the games, but the fourth network was also buoyed by lackluster competition from other televised sports events and by the Major League Baseball strike.
"The U.S. Open isn't lighting any fires, and the baseball season looks to be over, so football is the best and only show in town," said Steve Grubbs, senior VP-national TV buying at BBDO Worldwide, New York.
The baseball strike and the attention generated by Fox also helped bolster football ratings on other networks.
Based on its performance in the top 32 markets, NBC's single game on Sept. 3 got a 12.4 rating/31 share, up 16% from 1993. That evening, Turner Network Television's first NFL broadcast earned a 7.3 national rating, up 4%. And ABC's "NFL Monday Night Football" began its 25th season with a 19.9 rating, its second-strongest debut since 1987.
A stronger U.S. economy spurred ad spending, so inventory is tight in all dayparts. Also, baseball's absence made football ad placement a premium buy: The nominal football inventory remaining could be priced at more than $200,000 per spot, and networks say they will sell out.
"I don't expect to be working too many more Fridays, and if I am, I won't be selling spots," said Jon Nesvig, president of sales at Fox Sports.