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
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
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
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’
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
Originally published in the April 1996 issue of Boston
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