Thrown for a Loss by the NFL

The networks need football in the worst way. So they'll pay and pay and pay

When it's late in the football game and you're falling behind, the best strategy is often to go deep and hope something good happens. And that's exactly what three television networks did last week, reaching deep into their pockets to pay $17.6 billion for the right to broadcast National Football League games until 2005. Says Robert Iger, president of ABC Inc., the Walt Disney Co.-owned media firm, which spent $9.2 billion on both network and cable-television rights: "Losing would have been devastating."

Winning might not be much better. Although the entertainment business often makes deals that seem right out of Fantasyland,...

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