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Cable TV’s Infiltration Continues With Baseball

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The Washington Post

“Baseball needs you,” Commissioner Peter Ueberroth told a cable television gathering in Boston earlier this month. And when baseball turns part of its TV contract over to cable--the move could come as early as next year--it will mark the first time that all four major professional sports in America have been involved in national cable deals at the same time.

The NBA is on TBS, the NFL is on ESPN, the NHL is on burgeoning regional-cable giant SportsChannel America (after brief USA and ESPN runs). Now here comes Ueberroth--even talking about the possibility of baseball starting its own all-baseball cable network--completing the cycle of change in American viewing habits.

“I think that cable has become part of the fabric of American sports,” said HBO senior vice president Seth Abraham. “There’s going to be a real blurring of the line in people’s minds--there won’t be so much of a distinction anymore of whether something’s on cable or free broadcast . . . People will say, ‘What’s on TV tonight?,’ not what’s on cable or free TV. People will take it for granted, nothing unusual, not unlike the transition years ago from radio to television.”

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The way of the sports television world these days is shared broadcasting--the networks and cable each getting a piece of the pie, with the networks, at least for now, retaining the crown-jewel events (the World Series, the Super Bowl, the NBA finals, et al.). Not so long ago, network TV executives were skeptical of cable’s pull; nowadays, they concede a cloudier day is dawning.

“I think it’s part of the general marketplace,” CBS Sports President Neal Pilson said of the shift toward cable. “But I can’t anticipate any situation in which (the networks) don’t have product that we want to have. The networks are not going to be forced out of the sports business . . . Cable growth is going to level out. Even at its maximum penetration, the biggest projection I’ve ever seen for cable is 60 to 65 million homes in five to eight years. At that time, the networks will still be in every home, over 100 million.”

NBC Sports President Arthur Watson believes the networks still will dominate the business, but he said, “I’m not so much of an isolationist that I can’t see that maybe there will come a time, maybe five years, when cable hits all the cities . . . and (sports properties) might go for the bigger bucks (that cable might offer) rather than the greater distribution (of the networks).”

Ueberroth’s overtures to cable result from similar circumstances that confronted NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle last year--an attempt to maintain the same level of TV revenue in the face of declining network rights fees. Baseball’s $1.1 billion deal with NBC and ABC expires after 1989, and even though CBS badly wants to gain a piece of baseball in the next contract, the likelihood is that network dollars will decline. So by 1990, cable will fill the money gap; even next year--if NBC and ABC approve (and get a reduction in rights fees), cable might return to baseball (USA televised baseball in the early 1980s).

Many scenarios are possible, with a new deal expected in the fall. Next year, ABC is moving “Monday Night Baseball” to Thursday nights, clearing the way for cable possibly on Mondays. ESPN, 80 percent-owned by Capital Cities / ABC, is a decent bet. For 1990, Abraham speculates that as many as three cable packages are possible (to supplement any network deal, which almost certainly would retain NBC in its usual Saturday afternoon role). The front runners are ESPN and Turner Broadcasting, whose TBS superstation long has done Atlanta Braves games. Turner is launching a new cable network, TNT, in October.

The most intriguing prospect, though--even if it’s unlikely, according to industry observers--is Ueberroth’s all-baseball cable network. Skeptics contend: Does baseball really want to be its own programmer, is there enough channel space available on cable systems and what does the service show during the long offseason? Still, one would think cable systems would jump at an all-baseball service.

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Many in the industry believe baseball is using talk of its own network as a bargaining ploy.

“When you eliminate the middleman, you usually can make more money,” said Bryan Burns, baseball’s senior vice president for broadcasting, explaining why the move would be prudent for baseball. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for the people at ESPN . . . but when you see snow skiing from Denmark at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, I tend to think if we were able to show baseball to the consumer at that time, we’d do quite well, thank you.

“We could be darn near live from 1 p.m. Eastern time to 1 a.m. Eastern time. I don’t have any fears at all of going 24 hours a day from March to October. From November to February is a whole different matter. We could do winter league ball, awards shows, highlights.”

It may be far in the future, but it is not far-fetched. We may move from free TV to free TV and cable to free TV and league-owned cable. In many ways, it makes sense for a league to completely control its TV inventory.

“I believe there will one day be a league that owns a channel. One of the major team sports will physically own a channel,” Abraham said. “They’ll use it as an advertising vehicle, a promotional vehicle. I think Peter Ueberroth is ahead of his time with his concept, but it’s coming.”

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