A 90-minute presentation that would eventually spawn a historic change in the place Americans turn to watch sports on television took place just three weeks ago in a conference room of the GTE complex in Irving, Tex. The date was Dec. 7, and a small contingent of top executives from Fox Television was making its case to the National Football League's TV committee on why Fox deserved to be taken seriously in the bidding for a share of the league's next TV package.

NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and league president Neal Austrian had spoken several times to Fox officials in recent months, but now the TV committee was hearing Fox's impassioned pitch, complete with three video presentations, the first of which was entitled "Revolution."

That day, the TV committee members were bombarded with facts and figures on Fox's growth from a seven-station network built around Joan Rivers's show that started in 1987 to a 140-affiliate coast-to-coast operation. They heard about the network's appealing demographics, particularly among males from 18 to 34, about its plans for a high quality production, about the enthusiasm of affiliates that would be more than willing to promote the league any way possible, particularly in prime time.

They also were told by Fox executives that money would be no object, that the network was willing to pay whatever it took for either the prestigious package of National Football Conference games held by CBS or the American Football Conference package held by NBC. Fox was not interested in becoming a bit player such as ESPN or Turner Network Television (TNT), which split the Sunday night package. Fox wanted it all and, essentially, was willing to become the network of the NFL.

Ten days later, Dec. 17, the NFL made a stunning announcement. It awarded the highly coveted NFC package to Fox for an astounding $1.58 billion. In a year in which many of the 28 club owners thought they'd be fortunate just to match the $3.6 billion of their last contract ($32.5 million per team per year for four years), the league increased its rights fees to $4.4 billion.

"Nobody expected that," said Pat Bowlen, the Denver Broncos owner and a member of the TV committee. "A lot of people, most really, thought if we could get the same average as last time, we'd do very well."

Now each team will get $39.2 million a year from Fox, NBC and ABC and cable entities ESPN and TNT for the 1994-97 seasons. In the new era of football free agency, instead of teams being faced with a tight $32 million salary cap they expected, the cap could kick in next year at between $38 million and $40 million. That would allow most teams to satisfy many of their current players' financial desires and add free agents as well.

The TV news has lifted spirits on the field and in the front office all around the league, especially after all the tough negotiating talk from NBC and CBS about mounting losses they were suffering carrying America's most popular sport.

Industry sources already are estimating that Fox could lose $500 million to $700 million in this deal. But Fox, trying to use the NFL to strengthen America's fourth and newest network, has chosen to accentuate the positive, one critical factor in getting the NFC contract.

"Essentially, everyone else was telling the league the baby was ugly, and we don't think we should pay what we've been paying," said Preston Padden, an executive vice president at Fox who spoke at the Dec. 7 presentation. "We were telling them you've got the most beautiful baby we've ever seen. No one wants to hear the baby was ugly."

"They treated the NFL as an asset," Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, another TV committee member, said this week. "That's what we wanted to hear."

In early negotiations, Rupert Murdoch, the Australian media baron whose parent company, News Corp., owns Fox, told the NFL he was prepared to pay at least $1.2 billion ($300 million a year) for the four-year NFC package and $840 million ($210 million per year) for the AFC. CBS had paid $1.06 billion over the last four years; NBC had paid $792 million. Murdoch's numbers were far beyond what either network initially had been prepared to pay this time.

Three days after that Fox meeting, Dec. 10, Austrian called NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol and CBS Sports President Neal Pilson and told them about Fox's offer. Clearly now, the league had the upper hand over its two longtime partners.

On Dec. 16, Ebersol came to a negotiating session with the TV committee with an offer of $217 million a year for the AFC package, about $20 million a year more than its last contract. Both sides shook hands on the deal.

That same day, concerned that CBS might desperately go higher than $300 million a year, Murdoch upped the ante one last time. He told the NFL he was prepared to pay $395 million a year for the NFC package. Pilson later described it as "a preemptive strike" and also admitted it surprised both CBS and the league.

Pilson was informed of the Fox bid that night. The next day, Dec. 17, CBS said it was prepared to offer $295 million a year for the NFC, but Pilson and his financial people could not justify going higher, not after losing $100 million this season alone.

Instead, they switched their focus to the AFC package, putting their bid of $250 million a year in a letter CBS says the league accepted for further consideration. But last Monday, Dec. 20, the NFL announced that NBC had prevailed, that the TV committee felt it had reached a handshake agreement with Ebersol four days earlier.

"Going away from CBS was very tough for us to do," said the Broncos' Bowlen. "We honestly did not think it would go that way. But NBC made a move on Thursday, CBS didn't and was caught flat-footed. CBS was a day late and a dollar short.

"They'd also been asked at least twice before if they had any interest in the AFC package if they didn't get the NFC and they flat out said no. I felt very strongly that we'd made a commitment to NBC. It was a moral and ethical commitment that we couldn't back away from. NBC's bid was also the reason we got to where we did on the Fox deal. I couldn't have faced myself if we'd given the AFC to CBS."

Pilson said he is still mystified about the league rejecting his final offer of $250 million a year for the AFC, $33 million a year more than NBC paid. "We don't understand the process," he said the day NBC's bid was accepted, the same day he drafted a letter sent to all of CBS Sports's similarly stunned personnel.

"The TV industry is cyclical," Pilson wrote. "Competition is intense and major events change hands with some degree of frequency. I obviously would have preferred to stay with NFL Football. ... We must go on from here."

Many of CBS's football employees almost certainly will now go on to Fox, a company that must now start a new sports division under the direction of David Hill, an Australian who has headed Murdoch's European Sky Television satellite sports operation.

Just three years ago, CBS publicists were pounding the drums for a "dream season." They had National Collegiate Athletic Association men's basketball, a Super Bowl, the National Basketball Association Finals, baseball's All-Star Game and World Series, college football, the Masters golf tournament and the Daytona 500 stock car race.

"You start to think about what's happened just in the last three years," said Sandy Grossman, CBS's top NFL director the last 20 years.

"Little by little we started losing so much. The decision to give up the NBA was a terrible one. We were told the finances weren't right, but NBC made it work. The baseball deal was a debacle for us, then we lose that. Now it's the NFL. I guess I feel a little betrayed. We thought people up there {at CBS headquarters} would make it work. But it's turned out horribly."

Pilson insisted this week the network that has carried the NFL since 1956 will counterprogram with sports that traditionally have done well against pro football -- college basketball, figure skating, golf and anything else he can get his hands on over the next few years. But he is also about to downsize the sports division and expects most of his top football people to leave for Fox or elsewhere.

"We're not looking to unload talent for the sake of cutting people," said Rick Gentile, vice president of production for CBS Sports. "We still intend to be a viable sports entity. The most important thing for me is that whatever happens, there's no bad blood between anyone. I don't want to harm anyone. This is very difficult for all of us. That's the last thing we need."

At Fox, the first thing is to begin assembling a sports division that will maintain the high quality NFL viewers have come to take for granted. That will be no easy task, not with just six months to go before the 1994 preseason begins in mid-July.

"I'd like to think you can't start up a network tomorrow and put out the quality CBS brought to it for so many years," Gentile said. "I find it hard to believe that someone coming in tomorrow could do that. It's just not having the camera follow the football. There are so many technical details, decisions on where to send games on the network that generate ratings and create revenues. I don't know if you can jump right in and do that."

Grossman disagreed.

"It can be done," he said. "They have to say we're committed to making it work, and I'm sure they will. If you have two years to plan, maybe you can cut some corners. They'll have to make so many quick decisions, they can't do that. It's more than just lining up the talent. You've got to book remote trucks, satellite time. You need freelance cameramen, technicians, a long laundry list of things to do. And they can't afford to wait. Six months comes real fast."

The Fox people insist that will not be a problem. They also say they're prepared to go after the best talent their money can buy -- CBS analyst John Madden is at the top of the list -- and viewers will see a product enhanced by more cameras, more video machines, more slow-motion replays than they've ever seen before.

"We can do it," Fox's Padden said. "There's just no question about that."

Added Bowlen, "They've told us they want the top people. From a technical standpoint, it's not as if we're reinventing the wheel with Fox. There were so many other considerations that went into this too.

"We like their demographics. They appeal to a younger audience and we're looking to grow that end of our business. That was very important. We're not getting the kids growing up watching the game. It's not a big erosion, but our audience is also getting a little older and Fox really does attract a younger audience. Now we'll have both.

"They're going to promote it the way it's never been promoted before, up and down their schedule. The money? Obviously it's staggering. But if we felt they couldn't do a good job with the production, we wouldn't have made the deal. It was very clear to me they would do a good job. We're convinced of that."