ESPN-baseball flap will benefit Orioles carriers

Media Watch

August 20, 1998|By Milton Kent

For Orioles' telecasters, the hissy fit being played out between Major League Baseball and ESPN over Sunday night telecasts in September provides an unexpected but clearly welcome windfall. They'll get another game to sell, an almost certainly highly rated contest against the New York Yankees.

MLB has returned broadcast rights to the Sept. 20 Orioles-Yankees game, as well as games on Sept. 6 and 13, back to the teams and their carriers. CBS, which owns both Channel 13 and Home Team Sports, theoretically can televise the games on either outlet or on Channel 54, from which it buys time to show contests.

If the game remains in its current 8 p.m. time slot, the telecast would have to be carried by HTS, since both channels 13 and 54 would be showing regular Sunday night network programming. The chances of preempting those network shows is next to nothing, because the new fall schedules are being launched at that time.

More likely, the game would be shifted to the usual 1: 35 Sunday afternoon Oriole Park start, making it possible for either Channel 54 or HTS to carry the contest.

Rich Levin, an MLB spokesman, said yesterday that teams involved in the three Sunday night games taken from ESPN have the right to shift the games to the afternoon.

Channel 13, because of its new NFL commitments, would likely be precluded from airing a Sunday afternoon game, though it is scheduled to air the Friday and Saturday games. The Saturday Sept. 19 game, however, could be shifted to Fox (Channel 45) if the contest has national interest.

HTS spokesman Ted Ewanciw said the channel was waiting to hear from the Orioles about a possible change in the game's time.

"We just have to see if we can move the game time and see if we can make it work for one of our partners, if not us," said Ewanciw.

Meanwhile, what had been a simple dispute between MLB and ESPN has escalated into a full-fledged battle with both sides holding open the possibility of legal action.

At issue is whether ESPN, which now has the exclusive Sunday '' night NFL cable franchise, has the contractual right to move three baseball games from the main ESPN channel to ESPN2.

ESPN maintains that it can move the games, and in a statement issued late Tuesday night, said baseball's decision to give broadcast rights back to local teams violates the contract "which expressly provides for preemption and distribution on ESPN2."

ESPN reportedly offered to pick up additional games in September, with some Friday doubleheaders being offered to placate matters as well as allowing local over-the-air stations in the respective markets to carry games that also aired on ESPN2. Baseball declined.

An ESPN spokeswoman said the company is "reviewing its options," one of which includes filing suit against baseball for breaching its contract.

Baseball, however, contends that ESPN does not have the unilateral right to move the games.

"They are not allowed to put games on ESPN2 independent of some kind of agreement with us," said Levin. "They did it unilaterally, and we didn't even know about it until we read it in the papers. If they had talked to us before, we might have been able to do something."

But Levin said he could "not envision any circumstance" where late season Sunday night games could be shifted to ESPN2.

"We're not going to ESPN2," said Levin flatly, adding that baseball may also sue ESPN, though he said, "We don't want this to come to that."

Supposedly, baseball has been gauging interest with Turner Sports about jumping into the picture, which would make for an interesting piece of irony. It was ESPN's successful bid to take what had been Turner's portion of the NFL Sunday night schedule that led to this conflict.

While the two sides continue to negotiate, this issue is not likely to go away, as ESPN's regular season deal with baseball runs through 2002, while its new football pact goes for at least five years, with a possible three-year extension beyond that.

Both sides have some rights to a little righteous indignation. After all, ESPN, which asked for better games, probably should have consulted with baseball during its NFL bidding process to gauge possible resentment over having pennant-race contests shifted to ESPN2.

ESPN2 has a smaller viewership and less prestige than ESPN.

But baseball officials could stand a little reality check. After all, ESPN2 is in 60 million homes, and has shown some pennant race and postseason games already, so it's not as if the games will be seen in a vacuum.

Plus, the fact remains -- and the ratings sadly bear it out -- that American sports viewers would rather watch a meaningless Sunday night football game than a pennant race baseball game.

Finally, as we've said before, at this stage of the game baseball needs ESPN far more than the reverse. The all-sports channel carries a lot of water for a sport that is just getting back on its feet after a self-imposed debilitating injury. The Grand Old Game doesn't need to enfeeble itself any more than necessary.

Weekend ratings

The ratings for the top 10 most-watched sporting events on broadcast television in Baltimore last weekend:

Event .. .. .. .. ..Day .. .. ..Ch. .. .. .. R/S

O's-Indians .. .. ..Fri. .. .. .13 .. .. 12.4/23

O's-Indians .. .. ..Sat. .. .. .45 .. .. 10.2/26

Ravens-Jets .. .. ..Sat. .. .. .13 .. ... 8.9/20

O's-Indians .. .. ..Thu. .. .. .54 .. ... 8.1/14

Cowboys-Pats .. .. .Mon. .. .. ..2 ... .. 7.3/11

Raiders-Packers .. .Sun. .. .. .45 .. .. .5.1/11

PGA Champ. .. .. .. Sun. .. .. .13 .. .. .4.1/10

S'hawks-49ers .. ...Sat. .. .. .13 .. .. ..3.4/7

PGA Champ. .. .. ...Sun. .. .. .13 .. .. ..2.1/5

WNBA Special .. .. .Sun. .. .. .11 .. .. ..2.0/5

Pub Date: 8/20/98

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