Some TV viewers to find speeches out of earshot

When Comcast switched ESPN Classic from a position in the basic cable lineup to a digital channel July 10, maybe customers in Baltimore City and Baltimore and Harford counties didn't give it much thought.

But if they're baseball fans and not digital subscribers, they will probably be thinking about it Sunday.

ESPN Classic has exclusive rights to live coverage (1:30 p.m.) of the Baseball Hall of Fame ceremonies, so that is the only place television viewers can see Cal Ripken Jr.'s induction as it happens.

About two-thirds of Baltimore-area Comcast customers have digital service, a Comcast spokesman said yesterday.

Before the switch earlier this month, ESPN Classic resided on the low end of Comcast's channel list, available to anyone with basic cable in those three jurisdictions. Now, it's at Channel 265 in Baltimore City and Baltimore and Harford counties. (ESPN Classic had moved to a digital channel in Howard County in June and already had been digital in other parts of the region.)

About 85 percent of the Baltimore TV audience subscribes to either cable or satellite service, and 67 percent of the market is served by Comcast, according to figures from WBAL-TV research director Gavin Skeen.

Digital service is more expensive - for example, a Baltimore City subscriber would pay $68.95 per month, which is $17.70 more than basic cable.

Jerry Reese, 56, of Baltimore, who was at yesterday's Orioles-Tampa Bay Devil Rays game, expressed disappointment about the location of the Hall of Fame telecast.

"It's just another example of money coming first and the fans coming second," Reese said.

Comcast said it altered the channel lineup to increase on-demand and high-definition programming.

In addition, Comcast spokesman Jeff Alexander said, "We know the vast majority of our sports fans are digital customers, because they take advantage of our HD channels."

Fans at Camden Yards will get to see Ripken's speech on the stadium scoreboard after Sunday's Orioles-New York Yankees game, and those at home who don't receive ESPN Classic via cable or satellite can watch coverage of the induction after the Orioles game on WJZ/Channel 13 in a special called Celebrating Cal.

WJZ, like other Baltimore TV news operations, is sending its sports anchor and a crew to Cooperstown and producing its own video. That footage will be allowed to air, but only after the event.

However, don't expect to see all of Ripken's speech on any local station. The rights deal between ESPN and Major League Baseball prohibits other broadcasters from carrying more than two minutes of video from the induction, whether using highlights of the ESPN Classic telecast or their own footage, an ESPN spokesman said.

Should a Comcast customer decide today that he wants to change to digital, he probably could switch in time for the Hall of Fame telecast. If the customer can't schedule an appointment with a technician, he could pick up a digital self-installation kit from a service center, Comcast's Alexander said.

Thorne to emcee
Orioles TV voice Gary Thorne is stepping in to serve as master of ceremonies at Sunday's induction. The original host, George Grande, had to back out because of a family emergency, and the Hall of Fame asked Thorne, play-by-play man for Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, to replace him, a MASN spokesman said. In addition to making introductions from the dais in Cooperstown, Thorne will interview Ripken and fellow inductee Tony Gwynn on the ESPN Classic telecast.

Jim Hunter will call tomorrow and Sunday's Orioles games.

Anchors out in force
In addition to WJZ's Mark Viviano (who also will be reporting for MASN during Orioles pre- and post-game shows), Baltimore's other sports anchors are also in Cooperstown this weekend - WBAL/Channel 11's Gerry Sandusky, WBFF/Channel 45's Bruce Cunningham and WMAR/Channel 2's Scott Garceau.

Comcast SportsNet has dispatched Chick Hernandez and Brent Harris to the Hall of Fame.