New Network TV Pact a Hit
God, the adage says, protects puppies, small children, and the United States of America. He must also like baseball: e.g. its new 2007-2013 network television contract. Applauding, recall Napoleon: "Ability is fine, but give me commanders who have luck."
As far back as 1986, writing "Voices of The Game," I urged baseball to air a Sunday afternoon network series. Since 1996, when Fox TV’s "Game of the Week" debuted, I have asked Commissioner Bud Selig to achieve what he vowed: a Saturday "Game" each week — 26 yearly, not current 16, aired randomly and senselessly.
To my surprise, the new network pact, announced this week, secures both. Next year Fox will begin an each-week "Game" in fact, not just name. By 2008, TBS will broadcast every Sunday: baseball’s first Sabbath afternoon series since Dizzy Dean razed language, sang "The Wabash Cannonball," and tied Ma Kettle, Andy Devine, and Tennessee Ernie Ford in 1964.
A fan should cheer: If God was not a baseball fan, He seems one now. Last year, ESPN renewed Sunday and Wednesday night: In 2008, the big leagues will televise more than network 100 games, most since 1960. Suddenly, once-pedestrain getting has gotten great. Why? Flexibility. Hard work. Above all, luck.
Ironically, the millennium in the morn stems from Fox curbing coverage. In 1996, the network launched baseball to promote its weak prime-time schedule. "We’ll use the World Series and League Championship Series to spur our shows," said network sports president Ed Goren. Recently, its schedule surged: Thus, baseball "actually started to play havoc," said an aide, "with scheduling our prime-time shows."
Under the new pact, Fox will drop the Division Series and probably one L.C.S., keep another, the World Series, and All-Star Game, and pay $257 million yearly v. today’s $417. The expanded "Game," shifting from 1 p.m. to 3:30 local time — more sets in use: higher ratings — will swell network inventory. "We need more games to have more ads," said a Foxer. "All told we’re still in, but paying lesser fees."
To break even — actually, Major League Baseball executive vice president Tim Brosnan says the new pact will up network revenue 19 percent — baseball had to improvise. Enter the mother of invention — and inheritor of the long-held need to boost regular-season network coverage. Create inventory by adding another partner. Make April-September mean more, even if October couldn’t.
TBS will broadcast the entire Division Series and possibly one L.C.S. (ESPN and/or Fox contend). Above all, its Sunday series comes full circle. In 1968, Dean ended his broadcast career as a Braves’ guest announcer. Atlanta’s long-time SuperStation will now cover the network Series. The new pact KOs Braves post-1976 coverage. The change — national exposure; coast-to-coast marque — seems more than a fair trade.
TBS moors 92 million of the U.S.’ 110 million homes. "Each day," says Brosnan, "the number of homes without cable shrinks." By 2008, baseball, a once-incredible shrinking TV player, will, if not dominate coverage, anchor each weekend: three network games — appointment viewing.
The harder you work, it’s said, the luckier you get. Fox made baseball work harder to thrive financially. The luck is ours: the best baseball pact since Lyndon Johnson was in the White House, Mays and Mantle domineered, and "Green Acres" was the place to be. Soon bigs TV may be a place to be. Couch potatoes, this contract’s for you.