MLB to Turner, Fox: Play Ball

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Major League Baseball's postseason will take on a new look and a new TV partner following its 2007 campaign. However, one of the national pastime’s crown jewels remains up for grabs at this time.

Turner Sports, continuing cable's push to grab more marquee sports events, garnered exclusive rights to all four Divisional Series from 2007-13, and it will air a Sunday game-of-the-week package beginning in 2008. TBS will air the Divisional Series contests in doubleheader and perhaps tripleheader format. Sister service TNT could play a role if schedules conflict.

Fox retains the rights to the World Series, which will begin on Tuesday night instead of Saturday, meaning that the Fall Classic will open to a night with higher HUT (households using television) levels and the likelihood of stronger ratings.

Fox will also continue to air one of the League Championship Series, starting with the American League in 2007 and in alternate years through 2013. The broadcast network will present the National League Championship Series during the even years in between.

Fox is in the final year of a $2.5 billion, six-year contract that expires after this season.

Published reports placed the value of the Fox deal at around $250 million annually and the deal for Turner -- which is also grabbing the All-Star Game selection show from ESPN -- in the $70 million range.

The next owner of the other LCS package has not yet been determined.

MLB commissioner Bud Selig -- who, along with Fox and Turner officials, made the announcements of the new deals prior to Tuesday night's All-Star Game at PNC Park in Pittsburgh -- said, "There is an enormous amount of interest" in that package, and MLB hopes to announce the telecaster "in a short period of time."

Turner Sports president David Levy said TBS has “interest” in the other LCS provided that it has “a financial model that works.”

Fox Sports president Ed Goren said the network might consider a couple of the other LCS games in concert with “another partner.”

Officials at ESPN -- which, at this juncture, would be left out of the postseason party starting next season -- also expressed interest in the remaining LCS, depending on financial parameters.

For its part, Fox also retains the right to the All-Star Game, and it will have the right to expand its exclusive Saturday-afternoon game coverage to 26 weeks from its current 18-week schedule. Those games will move from 1 p.m. (EST) to the higher-rated 3:30 p.m. start.

Starting in 2008, TBS’ Sunday-afternoon package will not be exclusive, but the network will have the right to show another game in the markets where its primary game is blacked out.

Under a seven-year pact signed with MLB last season, TBS is airing 70 Atlanta Braves games this season and next. It was also scheduled to present 45 in the last five years of the pact. However, the new pact dissolves that commitment, as the 45 Braves games will be aired locally on WTBS in Atlanta and/or within the club’s six-state home territory. The new game-of-the-week deal allows TBS to air up to 13 games of any team, including the Braves, nationally per season.

Levy believes the continuity of the schedule will create “appointment viewing” and build momentum leading to the divisional playoffs.

In its heyday, TBS carried up to 125 Braves games nationally.

For Fox -- which has suffered losses on its MLB deal, which has averaged some $417 million annually -- the new contract will reduce its commitment to MLB during October. Momentum for the network’s primetime schedule -- just weeks after what has traditionally been the start of the new TV season -- has often been disrupted by the large commitment to baseball during that month. Fox has responded by going to a more year-round scheduling approach and by delaying the start of such hits as serialized thriller 24 and American Idol until January.

Goren said Fox’s primetime lineup has improved substantially over the years, noting that it has ranked first among the advertiser-coveted adult 18-49 demo the past two TV seasons.

He added that the new deal gives more exposure to the primetime lineup and fewer pre-emptions, but it still allows Fox to use baseball as a powerful promotional tool for its entertainment fare over a two-and-a-half-week period, rather than a four-week span, in October.

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