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TV Stations Cry Foul Over Baseball's Plan to Scramble Signals

February 04, 1988|STEVE WEINSTEIN

Fresh off a strike-marred football season, television sports fans may face another shortage of action-packed videotape when the baseball season starts April 4.

In retaliation for Major League Baseball's recent decision to scramble the satellite feeds of all major league telecasts, several Los Angeles TV stations are considering a boycott of the use of baseball highlights on their nightly newscasts throughout the 1988 season.

"What baseball is doing is something like organized crime asking for protection money," says Keith Olbermann, KTLA-TV Channel 5 sportscaster.

A spokesman for Commissioner Peter Ueberroth said the scrambling move is intended to prevent private satellite dish owners--especially bars and restaurants that use not-normally-available games to lure customers--from stealing these copyrighted signals and enjoying the games free of charge. In so doing, the league also hopes that more hardball devotees will subscribe to local cable channels that carry the games of their favorite team.

The real effect of this decision, say television sports journalists, who for years have gleaned most of their sports highlights from the unscrambled satellite feeds, is that TV stations across the country will now have to spend thousands of additional dollars to provide viewers with the plays of the day.

Olbermann contends it will cost Channel 5 at least an additional $54,000 to provide the same number of highlights the station aired last season.

Dan Noel, sports producer at KCBS-TV Channel 2, says it could cost his station as much as $200,000 extra this year.

That's because the stations will have to invest $3,500 for a device to decode the scrambled signal, according to Jim Small, assistant news director in the baseball commissioner's office. There will also be an administrative fee paid to Hughes Television, the company hired by the league to scramble the satellite signals, for every game a station wants unscrambled. The fee has not been set yet, but Tony Richards and Noel have heard rumors that it will be $50 per game.

The satellite feeds are games being transmitted from one city to another for broadcast in a traveling team's home market. If a St. Louis TV station is televising the Cardinals game in Los Angeles, for example, its signal sent back to St. Louis by satellite is available to anyone with a satellite dish anywhere in the country. Local stations often use these signals for their nightly highlights.

Now, to insure access to all the games being played simultaneously on any given night, each station will probably have to buy four or five decoders, TV sports producers said.

"It's coming as a jolt, just a couple of weeks before the start of spring training," said Richards, sports producer at KHJ-TV Channel 9. "We can't just snap our fingers and come up with that extra money. Our budget for the year is already set."

Sports producers are incensed by the new policy because they are being asked to pay money to provide what Olbermann calls "free daily publicity" for Major League Baseball.

"This move is suicidal for baseball," Olbermann says. "Access to highlights is the only way people get to see and become interested in other teams from around the country."

"Major League Baseball is saying that local stations make tons of money off its footage," Richards said. "And shows like (KCBS') 'Sunday Sports Final,' which in the summer are often filled with nothing but the week's best baseball plays, do make money for some local stations. But it's a two-way street. We are giving baseball oodles of free advertising, creating these larger-than-life superstars that spurs interest and makes people go out to the ballpark."

Richards, Noel and a representative from KTTV-TV Channel 11 met with an official from Major League Baseball two weeks ago to protest these new charges, but were told that the plan to scramble satellite feeds will go forward.

If local stations want the same access to the games as in the past, Small said, they will simply have to invest in this new technology.

Though several baseball teams that own their own cable channels stand to make money from additional subscribers, Small insists that Major League Baseball will not earn one cent in administrative fees or from the sale of decoders.

He also suggests that local stations will still be able to collect highlights of baseball games that are carried by regional cable sports channels free of charge. Most of these games are delivered via satellite unscrambled.

But only a few games each night are carried by such channels, and Olbermann complains that a station that once had access to between 10 and 13 games a night will be limited to bringing its viewers highlights from only three or four. Noel also points out that there is nothing to prevent these cable channels from scrambling their own signals as well.

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