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'Exciting' TV deal is just another rerun


At first you had to think Babe Ruth had come back. Or Walter Johnson, the 1927 Yankees or the Boys of Summer. "This is big," gushed Bud Selig, who speaks for a commissioner to be named later.

"What's so exciting," said Eddie Einhorn of baseball's television committee, "is we've restructured the national TV package; we've changed things to generate more interest in our game so people will watch."

It's new, energetic and innovative, executives of the game and their counterparts from NBC and ABC kept saying. "This will bring back passion to the game," one shouted over the din.

Here's the deal:

ABC and NBC are going to split the network package beginning next year. The current holder, CBS, had absolutely no interest in getting into a bidding war after losing hundreds of millions of dollars during the past four years.

But the thing is, there was no bidding war. Gone is the rights fee, which cost CBS $1.06 billion (with a B) and ESPN $400 million over four seasons. Yes, that's innovative.

Gone, too, is Saturday afternoon baseball, a staple on NBC for decades when "Game of the Week" literally made baseball in the living rooms. It was put to death quickly in the '90s, CBS showing a game seemingly when it felt like it.

In its stead comes a weekly game, all right, and in prime time, as though you didn't know. So enthusiastic with what they had wrought, the "partners" haven't even figured out what night of the week it's going to be. "We'll have that for you within a week," a spokesman promised.

And get this! Said prime time game won't even be starting its 12-week run, split between the networks, until after the All-Star PTC Game. Mid-July. Whatever happened to April, May and June anyway?

Selig said baseball charged its negotiating specialists to "not be encumbered by the past, to realize that the game had to change the way it does business in every way."

That led to this "unprecedented venture," which everyone pretty well agreed was a composite of the way things are done in the network TV packages held by other sports.

The NBA is copied in the way telecasts don't begin until the second half of the season. The 12 regular-season game nights will see the networks going regionally and exclusively, a la the NFL and college football. Then come the playoffs, hot-ziggedy. The League Championship Series will be handled in the madcap and interesting manner ESPN used to do the first round of NCAA college hoops.

It took a while before the executives delivered their piece de resistance, and, if nothing else, it arrived as the worst-kept secret since a tax increase. "There'll be a new round of playoffs," Einhorn announced gleefully. He added that 75 percent of people asked were in favor of wild-card teams being added, one per division, but did not have any particulars on what sort of a cross-section of people was polled.

Similar to the regular season, wild-card playoff games will be regionalized, as will the first five games of the best-of-seven League Championship Series. The deciding games of the LCS will have different starting times, "causing a doubleheader effect," according to Einhorn.

To address the previously unheeded complaint that baseball has been distancing itself from youngsters by starting postseason games too late, the first pitch of weekend games of the World Series will be served up no later than 7:20 p.m. As Dick Ebersol of NBC put it, "This is how we'll get the package back to the young," with no more than four of 30 prime-time games beginning at 7:20. Right on.

Because it is not receiving a rights fee, the network won't have to go out and sell the ad time, the TV folks, in effect, just contributing time and on-air talent to the partnership. Baseball is confident it will have no problem dwarfing the ad revenues of $151 million per year CBS was able to achieve, pointing out that it can sell, produce and promote baseball as it has never been done before. One of its hole cards will be sponsorships.

To do this and effect its "framework for growth" -- everyone just loves slogans, don't they? -- the game will produce a new entity complete with CEO, staff and a board of directors. How this all works out in the money department was put best by ABC's Dennis Swanson: "The network contributes the time. Baseball contributes the show. Everyone puts in what they've got and then takes his percentage."

Assuming there are profits to divvy up, of course. It has been a while since network TV even thought about making money on baseball.

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