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Baseball '90 PREVIEW : CBS Kicks in a Buck; ESPN Kicks in Gear


So long Vin and NBC.

They've passed to Buck. Jack Buck, that is.

The CBS era of baseball, with Buck as the main man replacing previously scheduled Brent Musburger, begins Saturday in the first year of a new baseball television contract that also includes ESPN.

Buck will work with analyst Tim McCarver as the lead CBS team. Buck was originally scheduled as the play-by-play announcer on the second team with analyst Jim Kaat. Replacing Buck on the second team will be Dick Stockton.

CBS will televise games the first two Saturdays of the season and then will take a seven-week hiatus until June 16.

CBS and ESPN have new four-year contracts--worth a combined $1.46 billion--that will change the nation's baseball viewing habits.

Fans with cable have greeted baseball's new alliance with ESPN as great news, since the sports cable network will bring them baseball four nights a week throughout the season.

There will be single games on Sundays and Wednesdays and doubleheaders on Tuesdays and Fridays.

And on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day, there will be tripleheaders.

Plus, ESPN promises it will keep fans abreast of any major developments by switching from one game to another, much the way it did during 11 years of televising the early rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament.

However, fans without cable are not too thrilled about the new setup. And about 40% of the country's 92.1 million television households are not hooked to cable.

Homes without cable will be getting less baseball.

NBC and ABC provided the nation with 40 regular-season games last season. CBS will show only 16--four more than it originally scheduled.

When CBS announced it would televise 12 games over the 26-week season, there was such a public outcry that baseball officials asked CBS to televise more games. CBS added four.

Baseball officials responded to criticism of the CBS deal by saying that more Saturdays will be freed up for local telecasts.

However, the Dodgers are scheduled for 13 Saturday telecasts--equal to last year. They were on Channel 11, their flagship station, five Saturdays last season and were on NBC eight. This year, they will be on Channel 11 nine Saturdays and CBS four. All but one of the Channel 11 telecasts are late afternoon or evening games.

The Dodgers could make another late-season appearance on CBS if they are in a pennant race. CBS is leaving the final two Saturdays of the season open.

The Angels are scheduled to make two fewer Saturday appearances on commercial television this season.

They made seven Saturday appearances on Channel 5 last season and were on NBC six times, for a total of 13.

This season, they're scheduled for 10 appearances, eight on Channel 5 and two on CBS. A scheduled ninth appearance on Channel 5 was lost when the first week of the season was postponed because of the lockout. All but two of the Channel 5 telecasts are late afternoon or evening games.

Fans elsewhere will be getting even less Saturday baseball. For example, the Boston Red Sox have no Saturday commercial telecasts scheduled, and the New York Yankees have one.

One of the severest critics of the CBS package is Curt Smith, whose most recent book, "Voices of the Game," deals with baseball broadcasting.

Smith contends the CBS deal is "the greatest fiasco in baseball's 69-year broadcast history." He says it slashes baseball's network exposure and hurts its popularity.

"Baseball becomes the first sport to ever voluntarily reduce its number of network carriers," Smith said. "From 1961 through '70, the NFL mushroomed from one to three networks, and its popularity exploded.

"Likewise, baseball boomed after 1975 by adopting a dual-network format. CBS's exclusivity gives NBC and ABC zero incentive to publicize baseball.

"History teaches us that network TV is any sport's best selling tool."

Smith believes the CBS arrangement is most damaging to the less privileged.

"It reeks of social Darwinism, survival of the richest," he said. "It disenfranchises those who lack access to cable or the funds to afford it. The poor, the shut-ins, the elderly, the habitants of inner cities and those on farms and in small towns where there is no TV link to a local team--they are the ones who are being deprived."

Looking on the brighter side, the ESPN package appears to be a good one for those who can get it.

Bryan Burns, baseball's director of broadcasting, said: "ESPN's ability to switch from one game to another will provide viewers with an immediacy they've never before experienced."

For example, ESPN may be covering a Baltimore-Boston game. Meanwhile, Nolan Ryan is getting close to his sixth no-hitter in Arlington, Tex. Kirby Puckett is attempting to hit for the cycle in Minneapolis. And Bo Jackson is going for his third consecutive home run in Kansas City.

"Imagine," says Burns, "watching all of this either as it happens or within moments after it's happened."

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