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SPORTS WEEKEND | TV-RADIO / LARRY STEWART

With CNN/SI, Competition Intensifies

December 13, 1996|LARRY STEWART

Is more news good news? CNN/SI, a 24-hour sports-news service that was launched Thursday, is counting on it.

There's also ESPNEWS, which started Nov. 1, and the lesser-known NewSport, which has been around for almost three years and is based in Woodbury, N.Y.

How many 24-hour sports-news services do we need?

The war is now on to see which survive, with ESPNEWS and CNN/SI having the heaviest artillery.

But this may be the war to which nobody comes, considering distribution.

CNN/SI is in only 500,000 cable homes, about

the same number as ESPNEWS. And neither service, for now, is on any Southern California system.

Until deals with major cable companies come through, most CNN/SI viewers will be those with big C-band satellite dishes.

However, viewers in the 70 million homes that get CNN will get a peek at CNN/SI, since CNN plans to simulcast CNN/SI at 8 and 10:30 p.m. in the half-hour blocks previously filled by "Sports Tonight," with Nick Charles and Fred Hickman. Charles and Hickman are now the main anchors for CNN/SI.

PrimeStar, a mini-dish system, will begin offering CNN/SI early next year. EchoStar, a new mini-dish system, has ESPNEWS, which may also show up on DirecTV. DirecTV now has NewSport, which reaches 10 million homes and will try to hang in there as the big boys close in.

*

The CNN/SI launch occurred at 5 p.m. Thursday at the Anaheim Convention Center, the site of a three-day cable television conference. On hand to pull the ceremonial switch were Time Warner Chairman Gerald Levin, Vice Chairman Ted Turner and CNN President Tom Johnson.

"The launch of CNN/SI unites two of the world's most trusted brands and demonstrates the smooth integration of Time Warner and Turner," Levin said.

Sports Illustrated is a Time Warner property, and CNN is a Turner property.

Earlier, Jim Walton, the executive in charge of CNN/SI who remained in Atlanta to oversee the start-up, said by phone, "ESPN and ESPN2 are basically event services with news programming. All ESPNEWS can offer is more of the same kind of news programming. What we can offer, with the marriage of the world's leading news gathering organization and an unbeatable print publication, is a different approach."

Said ESPN "SportsCenter" host Dan Patrick, "We're the monster, we're the model. If they want to come at us, great. We love competition."

CNN/SI announced its plans in the summer of 1995. Three months later, ESPN announced its plans. ESPNEWS beat CNN/SI out of the box, but now the real race is on.

*

One cable network with a niche all its own is the Classic Sports Network, which, for true sports fans, may be the best thing on TV. It carries many classic old shows, such as "Sports Challenge" with Dick Enberg, but its mainstay is classic events.

If you had Classic Sports, on Thursday night you could have watched rookie Magic Johnson, starting at center in place of injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, lead the Lakers over the Philadelphia 76ers in the sixth and final game of the 1980 NBA finals.

Classic Sports last Saturday showed the second half of Game 4 of the 1967 Eastern Conference final game between Boston and Philadelphia. Because of a strike, the ABC announcers couldn't work the telecast. So director Chet Forte and producer Chuck Howard announced the game. It truly was a classic moment.

The network was started a year and a half ago by Brian Bedol, 38, a former Time Warner executive, and Steve Greenberg, 48, former deputy commissioner of baseball and son of baseball Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg. The network went through some tough times but now, thanks largely to a $20-million investment by Warburg Pincus L.P., an investment banking firm, in September, things are looking good.

Bedol and Greenberg, in Anaheim for the cable conference, announced Thursday that a deal has been made with Century Communications in Los Angeles. Some Century systems will begin carrying Classic Sports on Dec. 31, with all Century systems carrying it by the middle of next year. That represents 200,000 subscribers and gives Classic Sports a real presence in the nation's No. 2 market.

TV-Radio Notes

WGN has settled a long battle with the NBA and will be able to televise 12 Bull games outside Chicago this season and 15 in future seasons. Under a new five-year agreement, advertising proceeds will be split among the league, WGN and the Bulls. Cable systems planning to drop WGN at the end of the year might want to reconsider. . . . Daily Variety reports WTBS, if it goes through with plans to convert from a superstation to a basic cable network, could lose the Braves. A Turner Broadcasting spokesman, labeling the story speculation, declined comment.

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