MURDOCH'S GREAT CATCH

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Terming the National Foot ball League "boring," Sports Illustrated asked on its Dec. 6 cover, "Can the NFL Be Saved?" Obviously, Rupert Murdoch believes the answer is "yes" and he's put up $1.6 billion to guarantee it.

Mr. Murdoch's Fox Inc. will play a major role in determining the NFL's future popularity, having purchased the rights for the next three seasons of NFL's National Conference Sunday afternoon games, playoffs and the 1997 Super Bowl for the Fox Network. That's popularity not only with viewers and fans but with advertisers as well. After a 38-year run, CBS is yielding TV coverage of the Bears, Rams and Lions to a new player, the Murdoch Foxes.

For Mr. Murdoch, the deal represents a gigantic step forward. His lively "fourth network"-once derided by TV network rivals-quickly adds appeal and strength as an advertising vehicle. And this comes at a time when the Big Three TV networks find themselves hard pressed to register incremental gains in viewers and sales.

In donning the NFL jersey, Mr. Murdoch can only bolster Fox's ratings, market penetration and affiliate loyalty at a time when those great unknowns, Time-Warner and Paramount Communications, are hatching their own "fifth network" plans. And by opening new daypart programming opportunities at Fox, marketers will be seeing new advertising vehicles.

Furthermore, as we reported last week, Fox is expected to be among the TV networks competing "vigorously" for global TV rights when the NFL's expansion program kicks in this year.

Mr. Murdoch will want his Star and Sky satellite TV networks to beam American football to Asia and Western Europe. This means that when the NFL's World League plan leads to a World Super Bowl between the U.S. and European championship teams, the word "boring" may never again be linked to the NFL.

As Robert Lipsyte wrote in his New York Times sports column, "Murdoch is a main toll collector on the information highway, perhaps the world's most wired man. He has the hardware and the organization to send those football games, those halftime shows, those Coke commercials into every corner of the known universe. Football is not baseball, which you need to understand to enjoy. Football is Nintendo for big boys."

Thanks to Mr. Murdoch's bold media vision and instincts, and despite all of the NFL's successes during its past 38 years with CBS, the games are just beginning.M

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