O's take a pass on some '03 TV games

Economics, less interest lead to up to 15 blackouts

April 18, 2003|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The regular-season opener at Fenway Park last week featured a rematch between three-time Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez and Orioles right-hander Jason Johnson, who had outpitched the American League's most dominating starter April 5 at Camden Yards.

In a season of little prospect for Orioles fans, this was one game worth watching, but it was not scheduled for broadcast on television.

The Friday afternoon game ended up being postponed by inclement weather, and Johnson got the best of Martinez again the following night on TV, but the situation still had fans scratching their heads.

The Orioles have televised almost every game for years, but the April schedule has been peppered with non-televised games, and there figures to be more consternation if several September games against big division rivals are limited to WBAL Radio and its affiliates.

It shouldn't be a big mystery why there are fewer games on TV. The Orioles, who appear to be on their way to an unprecedented sixth straight losing season, have been forced to make some hard choices in a soft advertising market.

"It was driven by economics," said Orioles vice chairman Joe Foss. "The decision to reduce the number of games is not our normal procedure. We have historically televised every game we possibly could. We would like to get 162 games to the fans through Orioles television, Comcast and the national telecasts.

"This year, because of the economy and cost issues, we left out many of the early [afternoon] games and left some of the September games unscheduled for the time being."

There are a total of 15 games unscheduled for cable or broadcast television this year, including six in September, though Orioles officials have left open the possibility that some of those late-season games against division rivals could be added to the TV schedule.

By comparison, only one game last year was not scheduled to be televised by Orioles TV, cable rights holder Comcast, or one of the national rights holders.

The decline in the number of televised games is tied largely to a decision by the Orioles to reduce costs in their in-house television unit. The team, which buys buys air time from local television outlets WJZ (Channel 13) and WNUV (Channel 54) and keeps all advertising revenues for over-the-air local broadcasts, shaved the number of those broadcasts from 64 to 56.

The Orioles also reduced the size of their in-house television staff, promoted Bob Whitelaw to head the streamlined TV unit and turned their advertising sales over to an outside firm.

Comcast actually is televising more games than originally planned, going from 85 to 88 by trading three exhibition broadcasts for regular-season games televised under its rights contract.

"There is a big distinction," said Comcast vice president of programming and production Jim Cuddihy. "We're supposed to do 85 regular-season games and five preseason games. We exchanged some preseason for regular-season games, but that's all we're allowed."

Many of the untelevised games are weekday afternoon games that draw low ratings and are difficult to sell to advertisers, especially at a time when the popularity of the team is in decline.

Television ratings for the Orioles' over-the-air broadcasts have dropped in every season since the Orioles went wire-to-wire to win the AL East in 1997. The average rating for games on WJZ, for instance, was 13.9 in 1997, but dropped to 10.4 during the Orioles' sub-.500 season in 1998 and has declined steadily since. The average last year was just 6.47. (The rating indicates the percentage of all television households watching a particular program.)

Ratings for Comcast and cable precursor HTS also declined over the same period.

Weekday games run well below the overall average, making the broadcasts cost more than they can generate in advertising revenue.

Perhaps in a better economy, the Orioles might choose to take a loss on those games, but not when every major league franchise feels pressure to do a better job linking costs to revenues.

Four April games were not scheduled for broadcast TV or cable, including Wednesday night's game in Cleveland that ran into a dual conflict with the Washington Capitals playoff game and the final NBA game of Washington Wizards superstar Michael Jordan.

Comcast also holds the cable rights to both the Capitals and Wizards, so April can be a scheduling nightmare. The cable provider juggled the schedule this week to place Tuesday night's Orioles game on a different cable channel (CN8) and pick up the unassigned May 7 game against the Detroit Tigers.

"We obviously have a lot of conflicts in April with the Capitals and Wizards," said Comcast director of communications Chris Helein. "Our philosophy has been that playoffs take precedence." "

The situation Wednesday night was further complicated by Major League Baseball's national cable contract with ESPN. The Orioles could not have added the game to their in-house schedule because local over-the-air broadcasts are prohibited on Wednesday nights under the ESPN contract.

The worst may already be over. The next game that will not be televised is a June 19 afternoon game against the Toronto Blue Jays. There also is one non-televised game on July 22 and two more in August to go with the six unassigned games in September that may or may not be picked up by Orioles TV or Comcast.

"It is not absolute that those games won't be televised," Foss said. "There will be some games that we may choose to add late in the season."

Most of those games are on Sunday and Monday, however, which puts them in competition with the NFL. That would be a huge ratings mismatch.

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