New Season, New Networks

The 1994 and 1995 seasons were marred by two ugly blots: the labor dispute and The Baseball Network. At least Major League Baseball has corrected its second biggest mistake.

The Baseball Network (TBN) was an intriguing concept: instead of selling broadcast rights to the networks, Major League Baseball (MLB) would produce its own telecasts in partnership with ABC and NBC. making its money from advertising revenues. Thus if baseball’s audience grew, MLB, not the networks, would reap most of the benefit. Of course MLB then undermined this strategy by provoking a ruinous strike -- but even after the players came back, TBN alienated millions more fans by treating the National Pastime like a last-minute summer replacement series.

Throughout the 1995 season, TBN’s coverage seemed guided by two principles. First. TBN assumed that their own product, televised baseball, was so boring that no one would watch unless their home teams were playing. As a result, "Baseball Night in America" scheduled every available game to start at 8:00 Eastern time and fed each MLB market a game involving its local team. No one thought long enough to realize that fans didn’t need TBN to see their local games...or that with two teams in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and the Bay Area, TBN’s telecasts kept half the fans in America’s largest markets from watching their favorite teams.

TBN’s second principle was "Ratings are all that matter." If TBN had the 8-11 PM slot on NBC, it blacked out all local broadcast and cable telecasts for the entire day -- including midafternoon and West Coast night games. After all, fans watching the Cubs on cable at 2:00 would never want to see another game that night, would they? "Baseball Night" thus aired fewer games than any other day of the week.

But if TBN’s regular-season telecasts frustrated fans, its postseason coverage infuriated them. All four first-round series aired simultaneously, thereby blacking out three-fourths of the games in every market.. New Englanders couldn’t watch the Yankees, Braves or Dodgers. Even the League Championship Series were played opposite one another! As a result, even with the extra round of playoffs viewers saw fewer postseason games than before.

TBN stuck to its rigid schedule even where it made no sense. With the entire East and Midwest watching other series, the Dodgers-Rockies first-round games still began at 8 PM Eastern time, when most of their audience was still at work.

TBN even refused to show baseball fans more of its only product. By the time the first game of the ALCS ended, Cincinnati and Atlanta were in extra innings...but rather than switching ALCS viewers to this exciting game, TBN signed off in favor of local news! ABC told complaining callers that "contractual obligations" prevented the switch. But the only contracts were between members of The Baseball Network partnership -- why would a venture whose only business is broadcasting baseball force viewers to watch local news instead of its own programming?

Fortunately, MLB came to its senses after the TBN debacle by negotiating its best-ever TV contracts. The new five-year, four-network deal 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. Including an estimated $113 million from international broadcasts, MLB will receive a total of $1.7 billion for TV rights between 1996 and 2000: an average of $12.5 million per team each season.

Leading off, Fox Broadcasting will pay $575 million for the rights to air three World Series, two All-Star Games, one League Championship Series each year, five annual first-round playoff games, and a Saturday afternoon Game of the Week. In addition to a pregame show, Fox will air a weekly half-hour of baseball programming for children. To publicize its new investment, Fox plans a major promotional campaign aimed at attracting younger fans to baseball.

Fox’s Game of the Week will begin Memorial Day weekend this season, but may start earlier in future years. Each broadcast will feature up to four regionalized games. Unlike The Baseball Network, Fox will have exclusive TV rights only from 1 to 4 PM in each time zone, thus allowing telecasts of local stations’ night games.

NBC, baseball’s most loyal TV partner, won’t telecast any regular season games, but will split the playoffs with Fox, paying $400 million for the rights to two World Series, three All-Star Games, one League Championship per year and three annual first-round playoff games.

On the cable side, ESPN extended its contract through 2000. It will pay $440 million for the rights to a Wednesday night doubleheader (with competing local over-the-air telecasts blacked out) and a Sunday night Game of the Week. ESPN also acquires the rights to all postseason games not aired on Fox or NBC: this includes one-game divisional playoffs like the 1995 Angels-Mariners clash, as well as up to 12 first-round games each season. MLB will stagger the times of first-round games to provide viewers with a full-day baseball feast: for example, ESPN could air games at 1 PM, 4 PM and 11 PM Eastern time, with Fox telecasting the 8 PM game.

Beginning in 1997, ESPN will be joined by a junior cable partner -- a joint venture of Prime Liberty Sports and Fox’s fX cable network, which will pay $172 million to air two games per week from 1997 through 2000. These games will be broadcast on two weeknights other than Wednesday...and will air without exclusivity, competing directly with local telecasts.

Last year, national baseball telecasts were limited to three weekly ESPN games and sporadic "Baseball Night" broadcasts, with half of the postseason games blacked out in any given market. By next year, fans will be able to enjoy six national telecasts per week, on four nights and Saturday afternoon, with every postseason game broadcast nationally. Now for that labor agreement...

Copyright © 1996 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the April 1996 issue of Boston Baseball.

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