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Big TV Comeback Is Baseball's Goal in Upcoming Season

March 23, 1997|JOHN NELSON | ASSOCIATED PRESS

First, there was no Game of the Week. Then, there were no games at all. Now, this season, there will be an average of more than five games a day on the Fox networks alone as major league baseball makes a big TV comeback in 1997.

"It keeps me awake at nights," Fox Sports Net executive VP Arthur Smith said, laughing.

With baseball not threatened by labor trouble for the first time in five seasons, Fox and ESPN can plan without worrying about possible strikes or lockouts.

"We're doing what we always do, but we have the added advantage that all the labor woes are behind us. This should be a real big year for baseball," ESPN announcer Jon Miller said.

ESPN gets the season started with a nationally televised tripleheader on opening day, Tuesday, April 1, and returns to do a total of 83 other regular-season games, including its Wednesday night doubleheaders and Sunday night showcase.

Also returning will be ESPN's Sunday night team of Miller and analyst Joe Morgan, in their eighth season together and widely considered the best in the business.

"Baseball set attendance records in the second half of last season, despite being at rock bottom from a public relations standpoint," Miller said. "But when the players just came out and played ball, people turned out. That showed me a lot. It showed me the depth of feeling fans have for the game."

Fox and its two cable networks--FX and Fox Sports Net--will show an amazing total of more than 1,000 games, more than 200 of them considered out-of-market telecasts.

The total includes 800 local telecasts of games on Fox's system of eight regional sports networks and seven affiliates. Another 104 games will be televised for the first time by FX on Monday nights and Fox Sports Net on Thursday nights, then add the Fox network's second year of Saturday games beginning May 31.

FX and Fox Sports Net will regionalize East and West Coast games. Fox Sports Net is made up of the regional sports networks aligned with Fox.

For the second year, Fox and NBC will share the playoffs, with ESPN doing between 6-12 first-round games, as well. NBC, which does not televise regular-season games, will show the World Series.

"It's going to get busy at Fox," Smith said. "We've had meetings all over the place--production meetings, talent meetings, budget meetings. And I said, 'You know what, if you think we're busy now, just wait!' The maintenance of doing this many games is going to be a lot of work."

At ESPN, the changes are more technological.

Not only will ESPN continue its audio experiments and instantaneous RAM virtual editing replays, but it will display a running box score every three innings, use a robotic camera behind home plate wherever possible, and feature an upgraded on-screen score box. The score box will include Fox-style diamonds to illustrate the position of runners and a radar analysis of every pitch.

"In this 500 channel universe, you want to give viewers as much information as quickly as possible," said Tim Scanlan, ESPN coordinating producer for baseball. "That is the genesis of this."

The luck of the draw gives Fox Sports Net the honor of doing the first out-of-market telecast of an interleague game on Thursday, June 12. The East Coast will see the San Francisco Giants at Texas Rangers, while the West Coast gets the Colorado Rockies at Seattle. Fox network will regionalize a few more on Saturday, and ESPN will make the Boston Red Sox at New York Mets its interleague opener on Sunday, June 15.

With 500 channels and 1,000 games, the question facing baseball now is, after several years of underexposure, is there finally going to be too much baseball on TV?

For FX and Fox Sports Net, it doesn't matter because they don't expect high ratings, Smith said.

"From our standpoint, major league baseball fits in very, very well. It establishes FX as a premier network with baseball, 'X Files' and 'NYPD Blue,' and 1,000 games give us a tremendous opportunity for cross promotion," he said.

From ESPN's point of view, it already was too much. ESPN used to televise games on Tuesday and Friday nights as well as on Sundays and Wednesdays.

"I think we found out that less is more," Miller said. "You either do seven nights a week or cut back to something the fans can digest. Fans couldn't keep track of our schedule before."

With Fox regionalizing all of its games, Miller also pointed out that ESPN's Sunday night game is baseball's only true national game.

"Fox does a great job and has been very important to baseball," Miller said. "But when you tune in a Fox game, you might have Joe Buck and Tim McCarver, or you might have Thom Brennaman and Bob Brenley. When you tune in ESPN on Sunday nights, it's Jon and Joe, the same all the time."

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