The 2012 season is underway and it's been a busy time for MLB Network, which has taken its first swings with a new ad hoc scoring and highlights service, while bolstering its regular distribution roster with the addition of the former Insight Communications systems.
The channel on April 10 threw out the first pitch on MLB Network Strike Zone with Time Warner Cable, Bright House Network, DirecTV and Dish Network. The service, which the distributors are placing on their various sports packages, provides live look-ins and highlights on Tuesday and Friday nights, when MLB Network is presenting live game action.
Tony Petitti, president and CEO of MLB Network, said the new service had been discussed internally over the past year. "We talked about what it would be, its look and how we could do it technically. We had to some things differently in our building (MLB Network is headquartered in Secaucus, N.J.) and add third feed," he explained.
While acknowledging some kinship to NFL RedZone and DirecTV's Red Zone ad hoc scoring channels, Petitti also said Strike Zone stemmed from the network wanting to do a stand-alone version of MLB Tonight, when MLB Network was in game coverage.
"We weren't out in the marketplace very long, but there was a strong reaction. Our plan was to get something done at the beginning of the season, and it's great we have four key affiliates on board," he said. "We wanted something that was fun, quick, that bounces around the games. It's been a good start for Strike Zone."
Now that the network is out of the batter's box, it can serve as its own calling card, as MLBN pursues additional carriage. "Fans and distributors can see it," Petitti said, declining to discuss what if any license fees the service is carrying. "Our goal is to have as a robust offering as possible. Strike Zone offers value as a service that helps us grows our business as well as that of our distribution partners."
Currentlyin its fourth season, MLB Network is the largest of the four league-owned services with almost 69 million subscribers. The day before Opening Day, MLB Network picked up carriage for the former Insight Communications systems that were recently acquired by Time Warner Cable.
The April 4 launches covered the former Insight systems serving Evansville, Ind.; Louisville, Covington, Lexington, and Bowling Green, Ky.; and Columbus, Ohio
"MLB Network is now part of the digital package as part of a deal with Time Warner Cable -- it's a nice chunk of subscribers," said Petitti, noting that "over the past 12 to 15 months, we've really been focused on the affiliate side. Adding AT&T U-verse and Dish Network gives us a presence with all top 10 distributors."
Among the other 60 affiliates MLB Network has signed deals with since Opening Day 2011: GCI, New Wave Communications, Electric Power Board of Chattanooga, Hargray Communications, Cincinnati Bell, Antietam Cable TV, Advanced Cable Communications, Marco Island Cable and Hawaiian Telcom
But like any good ballclub, MLB Network -- which is controlled by MLB, DirecTV and the owners of In Demand, Comcast, Cox, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks -- will need to turn over its roster.
Petitti, who declined to discuss license fees, said the service would enter the renewal process over the next 18 to 24 months. SNL Kagan estimates MLB Network's subscriber fee at 25 cents per month.
On the content side, MLB Network is teaming with Fox Sports on a 30-minute pregame show before the broadcaster's game of the week. Originating live from MLB's state-of-the-art Studio 3 in Secaucus, Fox Saturday Baseball Pregame Show is hosted by veteran Fox Sports and MLB Network broadcaster Matt Vasgersian. He will be joined weekly by a rotating roster of MLB Network analysts: Harold Reynolds, Mitch Williams, Eric Byrnes and Kevin Millar.
"It's flattering that we're collaborating with Fox," Petitti said, "and great for baseball that there is an expanded pregame show."
All variables being considered, Petitti estimates that MLB Network will again present "north of 125 ballgames" this season with its schedule of Tuesday night doubleheaders and contests on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. "With Fox airing more primetime games on Saturday, we'll be coming on in the afternoon or late-night," he said.
Looking ahead, MLB Network figures to be in the mix for what will be an expanded World Baseball Classic in 2013. "The World Baseball Classic was a very important part of our launch. It will be nice to have those games in March to complement our spring training coverage," said Petitti, noting that WBC sites and dates are still being determined.
The telecaster for the new pair of Wild Card playoff games that begins the 2012 MLB postseason has yet to be determined, but Petitti certainly wouldn't mind seeing MLBN being written into that lineup card.
"Our goal is to be in a position to be in the conversation for significant, exclusive properties, whether that's for this or the next time," he said. "It's something being worked on by MLB, the [national] networks and the commissioner's office."
Asked if he expects MLB Network to have more games when new national contract takes effect with the 2014 season, Petitti replied: "I'll echo what Tim [Brosnan, MLB's executive vice president of business operations] said. It's not so much about getting more games, but more unique content. It's not always about quantity, but exclusivity or something unique. "
That being said, Petitti also didn't want to see a reduction in MLB Network's game schedule: "We like live baseball over here."