Decoding CBS’s Lucrative Deal with Sylvester Stallone for ‘Rocky’ Movie Broadcasts in the 1980s

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The small screen premiere of the original Rocky film on Sunday night, February 4, 1979, marked a significant moment as the iconic movie finally made its way into homes across the nation, nearly three years after its impactful theatrical release in 1976.

CBS secured the rights to the highly-anticipated premiere, an event that garnered widespread attention in newspapers leading up to the airing. During this era, streaming services, DVDs, and VCRs were in their infancy, making network television—particularly the major networks like CBS, NBC, and ABC—the primary source of home entertainment.

Despite the absence of modern conveniences, Rocky, already a cinematic underdog success, continued its winning streak on television. Over 27 million households tuned in, leading to a 36.9 Nielsen rating, showcasing its substantial appeal to TV audiences. While it didn’t rival the colossal ratings of events like the Super Bowl, which earned a 47.1 rating just two weeks earlier on NBC, the Rocky premiere still captured a remarkable 78% of the Super Bowl’s viewership—an achievement unlikely in today’s media landscape.

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The television premiere of Rocky in 1979 coincided perfectly with the upcoming release of its sequel, Rocky II, stirring further anticipation and interest among viewers.

The success of Rocky II at the box office prompted a groundbreaking deal between United Artists and CBS in 1980, granting CBS the rights to air the sequel for a reported $23 million—an unprecedented amount at the time for network film rights. This deal eclipsed previous agreements for films like Alien and The Sound of Music, solidifying the Rocky series’ commercial value.

Burt Young, who portrayed Paulie in the Rocky movies, confirmed the magnitude of the deal and hinted at substantial financial gains for himself and other cast members. However, the lion’s share undoubtedly went to Sylvester Stallone, likely commanding a six-figure payout.

The franchise’s success continued with Rocky III, featuring Mr. T and Hulk Hogan, which prompted CBS to strike a deal to air the film for $15 million, capitalizing on its burgeoning popularity. Despite some questioning the hefty expenditure by CBS, the network aimed to establish the Rocky films as a viewing tradition, aligning with the shifting landscape of blockbuster movies and fewer studio productions.

While these deals enriched the cast and Stallone significantly, the landscape of television underwent rapid changes with the rise of cable networks like HBO, VHS rentals, and the emergence of FOX. This evolution signaled the end of such colossal network film deals.

CBS’s long-term agreement regarding the Rocky series lacked foresight in the changing media landscape. However, the network eventually merged with Fox’s VHS division, distributing the Rocky films under CBS/Fox Video, yielding considerable profits, particularly with the success of Rocky III in the VHS market.

Ultimately, Sylvester Stallone emerged as the true victor, securing substantial financial gains without additional work, benefitting immensely from the perfect timing, circumstances, and success of the Rocky series during the peak era of movie blockbusters on network television in the early 1980s—a period unlikely to be replicated.