The Baseball Network: R.I.P. (And Don't Come Back!)

If anything good came from the 1994 labor dispute, fans were spared a second year of The Baseball Network, MLB's answer to the Edsel. The original concept was intriguing: in lieu of rights fees, MLB would produce its own telecasts in partnership with ABC and NBC, making its money from advertising revenues. If the audience for baseball grew, most of the profits would flow directly to MLB. But even without the labor dispute dragging revenues down, TBN demonstrated an incredible aptitude for alienating fans. For example:

Regular season exclusivity. To boost ratings of the national "Baseball Night in America" telecast, TBN scheduled every available game to start at 8 PM EDT; blacked out all local telecasts; and fed each MLB market a game involving a local team. Nobody thought long enough to realize that:

(1) MLB doesn't need a national TV contract to show fans their local games;

(2) Showing fans their hometown games only shifts viewers from the local station to the national affiliate, reducing the value of each local contract;

(3) With two teams in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco/ Oakland, every TBN telecast kept half the fans in America's largest markets from watching their favorite team;

(4) The sporadic, badly-promoted TBN telecasts couldn't attract new fans the way regularly scheduled programming might; and

(5) The uniform starting time and cable blackout meant that "Baseball Night in America" telecast less baseball than any other day of the week.

Further irritating fans, TBN aggressively enforced its exclusivity even against noncompeting telecasts, blacking out midafternoon and late West Coast games. "Baseball Night" thus became the only day when fans in the affected markets had no opportunity to watch their local team.

Regionalized postseason telecasts. Even into the playoffs, TBN's masterminds operated as though their own product had no intrinsic appeal to viewers. In a world where every NFL wild-card game airs nationally and CBS broadcasts all 63 games of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, MLB's own television venture chose to deny viewers access to both league championship series. While this short-sighted strategy may have increased the Nielsen ratings for any one particular telecast, it antagonized baseball's most devoted fans and minimized overall playoff viewership. TBN wasn't even clever enough to use regionalization to its own advantage: even with the entire East and Midwest watching other games, the Dodgers-Rockies playoff games started at 8 PM Eastern time, costing TBN countless West Coast viewers.

Inflexible scheduling. The horrors of regionalized playoffs were compounded by TBN's inexplicable refusal to show viewers more of its own product. When the first game of the ALCS ended, Cincinnati and Atlanta had gone to extra innings...but rather than switching fans to this exciting game, TBN signed off in favor of local news! The angry fans who deluged ABC with complaints were told that "contractual obligations" prevented the switch. Why would a partnership formed solely to telecast baseball games force its viewers to watch local news instead of its own programming?

The New TV Deal: MLB Gets It Right!

Learning from the debacle of The Baseball Network, MLB reversed a decade of disastrous television policy by negotiating the best contracts in its history. The four-network, five-year deal not only boosts network TV revenues by 50%, but restores the Saturday afternoon Game of the Week, adds a weekly children's program, and increases the number of national cablecasts without reducing local telecasts. The details:

Dollars: $1.587 billion of them, or $317.4 million/year from 1996 through 2000. MLB anticipates another $113 million of international broadcasting revenues, bringing the total to $1.7 billion.

Networks: Fox: $575 million for three World Series, two All-Star Games, one LCS per year, five first-round playoff games per year, and a Saturday afternoon Game of the Week with one-hour pregame show, half of which will be directed to children. The Game of the Week will feature up to four regionalized telecasts, with exclusivity from 1-4 PM in each time zone. The Game of the Week will begin Memorial Day weekend in 1996, but may start earlier in future years.

NBC: $400 million for two World Series, three All-Star Games, one LCS per year and three first-round playoff games per year. No regular season telecasts. (The differential between Fox and NBC implicitly values Fox's Saturday Game of the Week at less than $90 million for five years -- compare that to what the cable networks are willing to pay!)

ESPN: $440 million for a Wednesday doubleheader and Sunday night Game of the Week, as well as all postseason games not aired on Fox or NBC. MLB will stagger the times of first-round games to provide a full-day feast for viewers: ESPN could air games at 1 PM, 4 PM and 11 PM EDT, with the broadcast networks telecasting the prime-time game.

Prime Liberty/fX: $172 million for two games per week in 1997-2000. This joint venture will air games on its choice of two weeknights other than Wednesday -- and its telecasts will not benefit from any form of exclusivity.

Copyright © 1995 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the Fall 1995 issue of Outside the Lines, the SABR Business of Baseball Committee newsletter.

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