Fox in Networks' Coop

WITH all the subtlety of a charging rhino, Fox Broadcasting has barreled its way into the middle of network television in the United States, leaving CBS in particular spinning it in its wake.

The thunder of its approach was heard last December when Fox outbid CBS for the rights to broadcast National Football League games - for decades CBS's province. This week, however, Fox announced that it agreed to pay New World Communications Group Inc. $500 million to sever its ties with the three major networks and enter a partnership that produces and syndicates programs. CBS will lose eight affiliates in major markets that include Dallas, Atlanta, Cleveland, and Detroit. But neither of the other networks emerged unscathed: ABC loses three affiliates, including one in St. Louis; and NBC loses one affiliate, in Kansas City, Mo.

The move not only raises Fox's profile among commercial TV's major players, it also sends a warning to television's Big Three. Local stations have grown restive over the amount of the program day - especially during prime time - they must devote to network programs at the expense of syndicated or locally produced shows. Such was the case for New World Communications. Fox provides fewer hours of ``network'' produced shows and an hour less of broadcasting during prime time. Meanwhile, improved technology has opened opportunities for more financially successful stations to expand the number of locally produced programs. And technology and TV news syndication services are allowing many local news programs to approach the reach, if not always the quality, of network news operations.

The Fox deal opens the door to more-brisk competition and flexibility in programming. But the question remains: Will that competition lead to more-innovative shows or to more shows aimed at a lower common denominator? The deal also raises anew questions about media ownership and concentration, about the public-service obligation of networks (Fox's sole ``news'' offering at the moment is ``A Current Affair,'' of the tabloid journalism genre), and about when the FCC will bring Fox under the same strictures as the other major networks.

The deal is a shrewd move that meets the interests of Fox and of New World Communications. But if Fox is to achieve the network status to which it ultimately aspires, the deal also must be judged on how well it meets the public interest.

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