TBS Scores a Playoff Win

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TBS has hit a cable home run, connecting on a seven-year deal to televise one of Major League Baseball's two League Championship Series, sliding past ESPN and NFL Network in securing the rights.

The deal, along with the comedy-centric network's acquisition of the National and American League Division Series playoff contests this past July, gives cable three-fourths of baseball's postseason games. The Fox broadcast network will televise the other LCS, as well as the World Series.

Terms of the deal, which extends through 2013, were not disclosed, but individuals close to the pact place the annual rights fee at between $40 million and $50 million. TBS will televise the National League Championship Series in 2007 and alternate leagues with Fox each year over the term of the agreement.

Turner Sports president David Levy said the deal was a major coup for the network and further blurs the lines between broadcast and cable television. MLB joins the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League in offering most of its postseason games via cable. On the pro-hoops side, Turner Network Television and ESPN distribute all but a handful of NBA playoff games, leading up to the ABC-distributed NBA Finals. Comcast owned Versus, formerly OLN, has iced coverage for most of the NHL playoffs, including the first two Stanley Cup Finals telecasts through the 2006-07 season.

“Ultimately, we believe at Turner that the television landscape has changed, with the lines between broadcast and cable virtually nonexistent,” Levy said. “We live in the one-television world, and the lines between television and cable now are less-defined.”

Neither Turner nor MLB executives expressed concerned about a potential drop in ratings or advertising revenue for the LCS with its move from Fox to TBS. In fact, Levy said that TBS will be able to draw the same CPMs from advertisers that Fox has generated for its coverage of the LCS.

“You're seeing no difference on CPMs between broadcast and cable on sports,” Levy said. “The advertisers are not going to pay a CPM decrease on a Mets-Cardinals [LCS] game next year, if the two teams are there, just because it's on cable. Television is television.”

Added MLB Commissioner Bug Selig: “With the television landscape changing as dramatically as it is, I certainly at this point in time wouldn't be willing to concede lower ratings. I'm very optimistic about this relationship and I think it's really a good one for us.”

The LCS deal expands TBS's new baseball package — announced in July and worth an estimated $70 million per year — that encompasses exclusive coverage of all MLB Division Series playoff games (conflicting contests will air on TNT); all MLB tiebreaker games; a Sunday afternoon game of the week package of 26 contests (starting in 2008); and the rights to the MLB All-Star Game Selection Show.

Also under the contract signed this summer, TBS will air 70 Braves games nationally in 2007, then 45 games on WTBS locally in Atlanta starting in 2008 through 2013. The club's return to Atlanta-area-only coverage brings it back to its 1976 debut on the pre-SuperStation WTBS.

“This is just upgrading what we've been doing for 30 years,” Levy said.

He would not comment on whether TBS, which will allocate an estimated $110 million to $120 million annually to MLB from 2007-13, would seek additional licensing fees to cover its baseball content acquisitions. The network currently charges about 40 cents per subscriber per month.

Turner pitched a better deal to MLB than ESPN or NFL Network, a surprise contender. Both programmers aggressively pursued the LCS package, according to persons familiar with the negotiations.

An ESPN spokesman would only say the network was interested in the LCS “but could not reach an agreement.” ESPN now has no post-season baseball games to complement its eight-year, $2.4 billion regular-season MLB TV package. The total sports network's $1.1 billion annual Monday Night Football package with the National Football League also does not include a playoff component, while it televises less NBA postseason action than TNT.

Queried about the supposed MLB play by the league-owned — and all-football, all-the-time — NFL Network, a spokesman would not comment But persons close to the network said its package interest exemplifies a desire to be more than just a pigskin-based service. Moreover, the sources expect the network to be a significant player in future marquee sports-rights negotiations as it seeks to gain distribution from cable operators.

NFL Network is currently embroiled in negotiations with several cable operators to distribute its eight-game, Thursday and Saturday primetime National Football League game package, which debuts Thanksgiving night.

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