At least that's the projection for 1996, looking at it as the first year in a new multiyear rights cycle that has completely restructured the ranking of TV's top national sports programming brands.
At the start of the last sports rights cycle at the beginning of this decade, the top 3 ranking was pretty simple, but ESPN and Fox Sports have emerged as formidable competitors, with each displacing at least one of the Big 3 networks into subordinate TV sports brands.
Using gross ratings as the criterion, an analysis done for Advertising Age by BJK&E Media Group, New York, finds NBC with a whopping 23% share of projected household viewing of the national TV sports programming outlets in 1996.
But incredibly, ESPN has overtaken ABC as the No. 2 sports network by a wide margin and, with a 22.5% share of household rating points, is only slightly behind NBC.
In truth, ESPN probably ranks ahead of NBC, after excluding the unprecedented array of one-time-only premium sports properties the peacock network will televise next year.
Starting with Super Bowl XXX in January, NBC will be the TV host to the National Basketball Association's all-star game, the Players Championship in golf, the PGA Tour, the 1996 Summer Olympics Trials, the French Open and Wimbledon tennis tournaments, the NBA playoffs and finals, the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Notre Dame football, the NFL's American Football Conference, a big chunk of post-season baseball and the Breeder's Cup.
"We had high hopes going in, but we never thought they'd be realized at this level" of premier sports properties, said NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol.
But take out NBC's special sports programming in 1996 and, said BJK&E Media Group Senior VP-Director of Broadcast Research Steve Sternberg, ESPN actually the No. 1 TV sports programming brand.
"The average rating on ESPN might be much lower than NBC, ABC, Fox or CBS, but they're on 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and when you add all those little rating points up, they equal some pretty big numbers," Mr. Sternberg said.
In fact, by what is probably a more relevant measure, rating points among adult men-the primary target for advertisers buying TV sports-ESPN is already the No. 1 outlet in 1996, with a 23.3% share of men 18-plus, vs. a 23% share for NBC.
If you also add in fledgling sister channel ESPN2's 1% share, ESPN's combined 1996 ratings points edge out NBC in households.
But by any measure, ESPN has a wide margin over the No. 3 sports network, fellow Capital Cities/ABC unit ABC Sports.
And while ABC still ranks ahead of the spunky Fox Sports on a household ratings basis, Fox outdelivers ABC in adult male viewers.
Fox, meanwhile, has a decisive 4.6-share-point advantage over the once powerful CBS Sports brand, which barely outmaneuvers Turner Broadcasting System's channels as the fifth-place sports outlet. And on an adult male rating point basis, Turner's TNT and TBS channels combine to deliver the same 7.9% share as CBS.
"You can make a case that rating points is everything. But it is not. It is certainly a significant part of our business, but we are in a business," said David Kennin, president of CBS Sports. "We are trying to make money and at the same time deliver a significant value to our advertisers and our affiliates."
Mr. Kennin said CBS Sports is in a period of rebuilding that has been somewhat sidetracked by the network's merger with Westinghouse Electric Corp. The network now has its sights set on the future playing field, including the next round of NFL rights beginning in 1998, he said.
But given the momentum of ESPN and Fox Sports, not to mention the latter's recent alliance with Liberty Sports to transform their joint assets into a Fox-branded cable and international sports powerhouse, Mr. Kennin's task is awesome.
"In less than two years, we've reached the point where we are passing CBS," said Fox Sports President David Hill. "Of course, we're not No. 1 yet, but we don't look at it like that. We're not interested in some mythical scoreboard. Our game is to grow the Fox television network. That's all we're in this for."
But while Fox Sports programming is doing well, it doesn't appear to be helping Fox's entertainment performance all that much yet. Season-to-date, Fox's prime-time rating is down 5%.
Still, Mr. Hill said sports ultimately will have a profound effect on Fox entertainment programming as the network develops better properties that can be promoted by its powerhouse sports content.
Others see it as an easy, if expensive, fix to Fox's entertainment development problems.
"The great thing about sports is it's easily transferrable from one network to another," said Dan Rank, senior VP-director of national broadcast at DDB Needham Worldwide, New York. "You don't have to explain what it is to people like you do with a new prime-time series. The NFL on Fox is like the NFL on CBS but with a little different attitude to it."
Mr. Rank said the properties would have the same impact on other fledgling networks, both in terms of overall ratings and in their ability to attract affiliates.
"If the new UPN or WB networks could land baseball, it would instantly put them on the map with both the industry and the public," he said. "Sports is known content."
TV sports networks ranked by projected gross 1996 rating points.
Household Household Men 18+ Men 18+
Network ratings share ratings share
NBC 285,438.5 23.0% 237,476.0 23.0%
ESPN 279,261.2 22.5% 240,529.8 23.3%
ABC 170,708.8 13.7% 141,548.5 13.7%
Fox 165,717.1 13.3% 149,689.9 14.5%
CBS 108,237.9 8.7% 81,562.0 7.9%
TBS 54,808.0 4.4% 42,340.0 4.1%
TNT 43,660.0 3.5% 39,013.2 3.8%
USA 42,843.5 3.4% 28,601.3 2.8%
TNN 37,800.3 3.0% 33,025.1 3.2%
WGN 22,279.0 1.8% 17,540.3 1.7%
Other 20,148.6 1.6% 11,787.0 1.1%
ESPN2 12,057.6 1.0% 7,343.2 0.7%
TOTAL 1,242,960.5 1,030,456.3
Source: BJK&E Media Group analysis of data from Nielsen Media Research.