Strike hits networks in purse. As pro football players picket, TV chiefs wonder how to recoup lost revenue

Fill in as best you can - and hope for an end to the strike. That's the commercial TV networks' current strategy as they try - with what seems to be mounting concern - to cope with the walkout of National Football League players.

The strike may be frustrating to fans. But to the networks, it's a ``clip'' where it hurts most - in the pocketbook. The NFL games normally aired at this time of year - on Sunday by CBS and NBC, and on Monday night by ABC - are costly but lucrative forms of entertainment that reach vast audiences.

Up to 16 million households typically tune in to the Sunday games, and up to 18 million to the Monday-night broadcasts.

Nearly $20 million a weekend is shared among the three networks in advertising revenue - up to about $200,000 for a 30-second commercial.

The networks have arranged to pay the NFL an estimated $1.2 billion over three years - about $21 million a week during the season.

So far, viewership figures suggest the appeal of NFL games will be very hard to duplicate. In the absence of the striking players, CBS and NBC offered alternative sports programming on Sept. 27, and ABC offered a movie on Sept. 28. But A.C. Nielsen ratings show a radical drop in audience for these substitute programs.

The Super Bowl replay seen on CBS reached only about a third of its usual NFL audience: 3.4 million households vs. the average 13-plus million.

The Toronto-Detroit baseball game aired by NBC reached less than half the NFL households it normally does: 4.5 million vs. a typical 11-plus million.

ABC fared a little better with its ``Star Trek'' film - reaching more than 12 million households - but even that is far below the network's typical Monday-night football audience, with its 16 million or more households.

Yesterday CBS and NBC offered ``NFL'' games, as will ABC tonight, but with teams made up mostly of replacement players who had originally been cut from the rosters.

``The only thing that's going to be different is the people in the uniforms,'' said an NBC sports spokesman before the Sunday game. ``We will air all of the games ... that we were scheduled to air.'' Yet while these contests are technically NFL games, they seemed likely to fall far short of satisfying fans, networks, or advertisers.

``I think the networks will be hurting,'' says Allen Banks, executive vice-president and director of media for Saatchi & Saatchi DFS Compton, one of the advertising agencies buying time for clients on the football telecasts.

``There's an awful lot of revenue involved here,'' he said by phone from New York, ``and the replacement programming, particularly on Sunday afternoons, will not perform nearly as well as the regular football would.'' Many advertisers would like to put their TV money in other network programs, he says, but the TV market won't absorb all that money.

During a pro football strike several years ago, seven weeks of games were canceled. But not as much advertising had been sold, so less was at stake for the networks. By contrast, an executive at the huge J.Walter Thompson ad agency puts the networks' potential revenue loss during the current strike at around 50 percent of their usual NFL broadcast income. One reason: advertisers often enter a ``sponsorship'' arrangement with the networks that guarantees certain viewership during NFL games. When ratings fall short, an adjustment is made.

Even with such high costs, however, sports programming - in terms of ``cost-per-thousand'' viewers - is often a very good deal for the networks, compared with prime-time advertising. And beyond costs, the kind of viewer reached by NFL games is attractive to many advertisers.

``There are lots of reasons why football makes more sense for certain accounts than movies do,'' Mr. Banks says. ``With pro football you tend to get a more upscale viewer, and it's more promotable. If you have an automobile account, you have a number of dealers that are watching. Plus the environment is different from movies, whose viewership tends to be female-oriented.''

Network executives will look hard at the ratings for yesterday's and tonight's games. Then they will decide whether to go ahead with more replacement games or to look for other attractions. But most say the only real answer is a settlement.

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