MLB Deal a Warmup Pitch for DirecTV

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If cable operators think they've struck out — or at least outmanaged — DirecTV by stalling its likely exclusive deal for Major League Baseball's subscription out-of-market game package, they should think again.

March, mad though it might be, is still spring training for the in-ownership-transition satellite-TV leader. The real season for DirecTV, and for EchoStar's Dish Network, starts in the fall, when television purchases pick up and National Football League games resume.

And when summer turns to fall this year, DirecTV is promising is ready to start throwing some curves.

At DirecTV's dealer convention in Dallas last week, when Rod Stewart and Sheryl Crow weren't singing, the emphasis was on innovation. DirecTV is taking swings at new services and ways to program entertainment, according to some folks in attendance.

In original programming, for example, DirecTV's channel that mainly shows music programs, The 101, will take on a different character in different dayparts (such as kids' fare early in the morning, women's shows later and then shows for older kids), according to Eric Shanks, the service's executive vice president for entertainment, who spoke with News Editor Mike Reynolds.

Last week, Channel 101 televised two programs live from the burgeoning South by Southwest alternative-music and film festival in Austin, Texas: the channel's previously plugged in original music-performance show CD USA and Project MyWorld, a reality show about some female travelers who met on MySpace.

Then there's interactivity. After News Corp. bought control of DirecTV in 2003, cable companies expected the satellite service to significantly ramp up interactive features, and some of that has happened, especially in sports. They range from driver-specific channels in the “NASCAR Hot Pass” service, the “NFL Sunday Ticket” Red Zone channel that shifts from game to game following big plays and multi-screen coverage of the tennis U.S. Open.

Even as News Corp. is selling control to Liberty Media, DirecTV is planning to add more interactivity, including a Red Zone-like feature to “MLB Extra Innings,” called the Strike Zone, that will highlight big moments from various games.

Also at the dealer conference, titled “Revolution,” DirecTV touted video-game tournament coverage and the “video on demand” service it said in January would roll out by the middle of the year.

One attendee said that service, which requires a high-speed Internet connection plugged into a DirecTV set-top, will be better integrated into the interactive program guide than cable's VOD offerings are at present. Stay, as they say, tuned.

DirecTV's continuous pre-emptive attack on cable on high-definition heft — promising to offer 150 national HD channels after some satellites (and many HD networks) get launched this year — is also more likely to influence multichannel video buying decisions than whether or not DirecTV gets to pitch the public on an exclusive MLB Extra Innings package before Opening Day.

DirecTV scored a run last week when The Walt Disney Co. said several of its programming outlets would launch HD extensions on the 16-million-subscriber satellite-TV provider next year. Part of the deal is DirecTV carriage of ESPN Deportes. DirecTV is willing to add channels to get other programming it wants, such as MLB's planned all-baseball channel, which no big distributor other than DirecTV has yet guaranteed widespread carriage. DirecTV did so to get the MLB Extra Innings out-of-market subscription service exclusively.

After pundits and politicians complained on behalf of Red Sox Nation members and other transplanted fans who can't get DirecTV, the same offer was made available to cable and Dish Network. DirecTV probably will end up with the exclusive — cable representatives have indicated they won't or can't match the terms, and EchoStar chairman Charlie Ergen said during a “Charlie Chat” with viewers last Monday that less than 1% of Dish customers typically bought Extra Innings.

The delay has blunted the package's value as a customer acquisition tool during baseball's spring training, to be sure.

But this is still exhibition season. The real games begin in a few months — after the Boys of Summer are in full swing.

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