O's are touching bases as growing TV power

Self-produced games put regional network on deck

May 08, 2002|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

Sharp-eyed Orioles television watchers already might have noticed slight changes in the way some of the game broadcasts look and feel. However, just beyond the horizon, the club is planning the kind of overhaul that may change how Baltimoreans see not only their Orioles, but some local college athletics as well.

For the first time in club history, the Orioles are producing their own telecasts, or at least the ones that appear on over-the-air stations, such as channels 13 and 54. Veteran director Bob Whitelaw and producer Chris Glass, who headed up Home Team Sports' productions of Orioles games, have been added to run the Orioles' telecasts, while the team has purchased the air time from the stations and is selling the advertising itself, keeping all the ad revenue.

In addition, the Orioles have begun a weekly self-produced half-hour show, Orioles Magazine, and will soon open a fully operational television studio in their warehouse offices.

All of which sets the stage for the team to fulfill the goal of launching its own regional sports cable television channel when its deal with Comcast SportsNet expires after the 2006 season.

"We think there's a critical mass of cable homes that make it worth our while to try something like this," said John Claiborne, the Orioles' new head of broadcasting.

Claiborne, who joined the Orioles this season after 16 years with New England Sports Network (NESN), a regional channel owned by the Boston Red Sox, said the team intends to build an outlet that would provide programming throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, a potential base of 6 million homes that have cable television in an area from Maryland into the Carolinas.

Claiborne said the team would look to air about 120 games on its channel during the baseball season, then strike deals with local colleges and programming providers, like ESPN's regional programming division, for fall and winter sports to air on the channel.

"We find the fall and winter [programming schedules] are not as difficult to fill as you might think," Claiborne said. "If you didn't have a baseball team in the summer, all you'd have is the guys who drive around the ovals in the cars."

The move to create a franchise-owned channel is not a new one. Besides NESN, the New York Yankees began operating their own channel, the YES Network, this year, but have run into a considerable hurdle with Cablevision, which has declined to carry YES in its 3 million homes in a squabble over channel placement and subscriber fees.

A new Orioles channel could similarly run afoul of Comcast, which not only operates the majority of cable franchises in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, but also owns Comcast SportsNet.

Claiborne said the Orioles are already talking with Comcast about issues that might arise from the new channel, but added, "Will there be some battling between us? I think the answer is yes."

Another potential stumbling block for an Orioles channel is the possibility that Major League Baseball franchises may relocate to or be granted via expansion to Washington or Charlotte, N.C., two cities with thousands of cable homes that would be committed to carrying their own teams.

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