FIRST PERIOD: FOX'S NFL ON MARCH

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Super slow-mo grunting and sweating. Hard-hitting violence set to a rock sound track. Annoying on-screen graphics that make you want to chuck stuff at your TV.

No, this isn't MTV. This is the NFL on Fox, which last December outbid CBS for the TV rights to the prized National Football Conference's broadcast package. The price: $1.6 billion over four years, about $500 million more than CBS bid.

Nobody, including Fox, expected the network to break even on the broadcasts. But for Rupert Murdoch, the deal was still worth it: The NFL would enhance the asset value of his owned-and-operated stations and provide powerful promotional support for the network's programming.

Still, media buyers scoffed when Fox hit the streets promising a CBS-like performance-a 12.9 average Nielsen rating-and asking for CBS-like prices-$120,000 per spot on average.

But going into its first regular season broadcast Sept. 4, Fox sales executives said they had sold about 85% of their inventory and were nearing $270 million in sales, which is what CBS did last year. That's not enough for the network to turn a profit, but the numbers are impressive.

"We had some pretty aggressive sales goals that were on par with what CBS did with the NFC last year," said Jon Nesvig, president of sales for Fox Sports. "We did better than we thought we would."

Credit Mr. Murdoch's deep pockets and a little luck. Back in May, the media mogul spent $500 million to buy 11 stations via a deal with New World Communications Group. Other acquisitions and affiliation switches followed, boosting Fox's coverage to 99% of the country-and boosting the confidence of media buyers.

Also, an upswing in the economy has spurred advertisers to buy more time in the upcoming TV season. Upfront spending has topped $4 billion, up 20% from '93-94. Football inventory is tight on all NFL networks. At Fox rival NBC, inventory is more than 90% sold, with sales topping $270 million.

Fox endeared itself to many advertisers by crafting packages that included prime-time spots and something that networks don't usually like to offer-in-game augmentations.

McDonald's Corp.'s four-year, $40 million deal, for example, is loaded with enhancements. Among them: sponsorship of "Game Break" updates of other games in progress. These sponsored breakaways aren't considered advertising. McDonald's also gets a special "Game Break" that will air after the Fox game and during "The Simpsons" that will showcase a pivotal play from the featured game. McDonald's agency Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, handles.

Fox convinced Royal Crown Cola Co. to add NFL spots to the advertiser's prime-time package by creating a special promotion for RC during its pre-game studio show. The feature profiles an NFL player who promises to "Shake Things Up"-a variation of RC's new ad tagline.

Fox's three prime-time pre-season games averaged a 6.9 rating, slightly below the 7.0 average rating CBS received for three Sunday afternoon pre-season games last year. Most media buyers expect regular season games to be off the CBS pace by 1.0 to 1.5 ratings point.

Fox promised to retain CBS viewers but also grow the NFL audience among the network's constituency-the 18-35 demographic. To that end, Fox has created more than 80 hip and edgy promotional spots targeted at young people. And NFL players will appear in a variety of Fox programs.

"We see opportunities with young people, the Fox demo," said Tracy Dolgin, Fox senior VP-sports marketing. "... We think if we expose more of them to the NFL, those who have never sampled it will."

But the media community has its doubts.

"This isn't MTV," said Lou Schultz, exec VP-director of media services at New York-based Lintas Worldwide. "...NFL fans are NFL fans. I just don't think this audience is growable. They'll have to work like hell just to keep the CBS audience."

Jeanne Whalen contributed to this story.

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