What Content Marketers Can Learn from the Greatest Television Steal of All Time

Last Thursday, the NFL announced a $113 billion TV deal with its broadcast partners—an insane haul that cemented the NFL as the most coveted entertainment property on earth. As it was announced, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the greatest television steal of all time—and the incredible innovations it introduced.

Our story starts in 1993. The Fox News propaganda machine was still just a twinkle in Rupert Murdoch’s eyes. Fox Sports didn’t exist. And Fox was still a fringe network compared to the “big three” of CBS, NBC, and ABC. The Simpsons and The X-Files were huge hits, but Fox didn’t have much past that. The vast majority of Fox affiliates aired the network on channels 14 to 83, a TV no-man’s-land at the time.

“We would have a great show like The X-Files,” Tracy Dolgin, Fox Broadcasting’s EVP of marketing at the time, told The Ringer in their incredible oral history of Fox’s first NFL deal. “But the ratings weren’t what the ratings on The X-Files would have been if it were on CBS, NBC, or ABC. It wasn’t because the show wasn’t good. It was because a lot of people never turned Fox on.”

However, Fox saw a golden opportunity when it was time for the NFL to negotiate a new TV rights deal. ABC had Monday Night Football. NBC had the rights to air all of the games in the American Football Conference (AFC). CBS had the crown jewel—the rights to the National Football Conference (NFC) and the country’s most popular teams: the Cowboys, 49ers, Packers, Giants, and Bears.

No one thought that would change—certainly not CBS, which made a low-ball offer of $250 million to keep the NFC rights, a $15 million reduction from the previous deal. But Murdoch had other plans. He schemed with hotshot Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to get Fox in the negotiations. Then he made the new NFL commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, a godfather offer: $400 million in exchange for the NFC games.

CBS declined to match, and suddenly, Fox had the most coveted asset in TV. It’d end up being the greatest television steal of all time. But first, the network had 6 months to create Fox Sports from scratch. In the process, they did a few genius things that all marketers can learn from.

1. They broke established best practices

Fox didn’t poach a producer from NBC or CBS to recreate their NFL product. Instead, they put an Australian named David Hill in charge. Hill had run Sky Sports for Murdoch in Australia and the UK, mostly overseeing soccer.

Hill thought U.S. sports producers had lost the plot, so he rethought how to televise football from the ground up. Like using seven cameras instead of five to capture more captivating replay angles. And introducing the first hour-long pregame show, starring kooky characters like Terry Bradshaw and Jimmy Johnson, while airing compelling video segments about players.

They also developed a dramatic “sonic brand”—the NFL on Fox pregame music—that would soon have half of America running through a brick wall—and to the TV—the moment they heard it.

What content marketers can learn: Break convention. Doing the same thing as everyone else doesn’t work. As marketers, we face incredible competition from the millions of stories buzzing in our audience’s pockets every day. To stand out, we need to approach our content differently.

Create narrative podcasts with unique premises instead of just doing another generic interview show. Build interactive experiences when everyone else is publishing PDFs. Publish unique and provocative research and thought leadership when everyone else is posting generic how-tos.

2. They invested in up-and-coming talent

Fox made one big move to give itself credibility, luring the dynamic announcing duo of John Madden and Pat Summerall from CBS. But the network also invested in a ton of young talent who eventually became the next generation of great sports announcers, like 25-year-old Joe Buck, 26-year-old Kenny Albert, and 34-year-old Kevin Harlan.

They were unproven, talented, and almost certainly benefited from growing up in broadcasting families. They brought an energy that made games on other networks feel like they were broadcast at half speed, giving Fox another key competitive differentiator.

What content marketers can learn: While I don’t advocate hiring a bunch of rich, privileged white guys, I do champion nurturing up-and-coming content talent. In particular, hire journalists. They’ve spent years learning how to create great content and get it in front of an audience. If you bring on new people, make sure you let them develop their own brand and voice to build a deeper relationship with your audience.

content marketers can learn about personal brands

3. They put their audience first with the Fox Box

If you watch old football, basketball, and baseball broadcasts, you’ll notice something strange: The score and time aren’t on screen most of the time. We take it for granted now, but before Fox came along, networks were afraid that people would change the channel if they saw that the game was a blowout.

Fox Sports decided to introduce the Fox Box to show the time and score on screen—after all, that’s what their audience wanted, right?

Fox Box

“All the networks told us, ‘You’re screwing this up. You’re idiots to do this,” Dolgin told The Ringer.

The other networks thought Fox was ruining the ruse that allowed them to trick the audience into watching. Hill got so many death threats that the LAPD gave him a concealed carry permit. (Which, as an Australian, he politely declined.) Yet before long, the Fox Box was so popular that other networks were forced to create their own versions.

What content marketers can learn: Don’t try to trick your audience. Don’t publish editorial content that’s just a display ad in sheep’s clothing, or mislead them into filling out a form. A bad content experience is never good for business.

Always put your audience first—even if some idiot tells you that giving your audience what they want will hurt the bottom line.

Image by YU22

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