TNT's New Wimbledon Doubles Partner: CNNfn

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No longer able to serve from defunct CNN/Sports Illustrated, Turner Network Television has enlisted CNNfn to carry portions of its Wimbledon tennis tournament coverage.

The AOL Time Warner Inc.-owned financial-news network will air 28 hours of Wimbledon programming. That supplements more than 86 hours of coverage of the world's most prestigious tennis tourney on corporate sibling TNT, starting June 22, said Turner Sports president Mark Lazarus.

Coverage of the famed grass-court tourney will mark the first volley into sports for the 19 million-subscriber CNNfn. Previously, the network's sports coverage has been limited to segments about the business of balls, sticks and helmets.

Lazarus said Turner Sports chose CNNfn after CNN/SI — which had carried the tournament for the last two years — shut down operations last month.

"As part of the deal with the All-England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club [the tournament's TV rights-holder] we will provide additional coverage on one of our emerging networks," Lazarus said. "We will continue to give Wimbledon the additional exposure through CNNfn."

Much like CNN/SI, CNNfn has found it difficult to gain substantial distribution in a crowded marketplace. The network was expected to be renamed CNN Money earlier this year to reflect the synergies between the network and AOL Time Warner-owned Money magazine, but the corporate parent has pushed that makeover off indefinitely.

CNNfn will televise match highlights throughout the tournament, Lazarus said. It will also televise a special series titled Money & Sports — an in-depth examination of the business of sports — throughout the fortnight.

Lazarus admitted that CNNfn does not cater to the sports audience, but said Turner Broadcasting System Inc. would heavily promote CNNfn's Wimbledon coverage in an effort to draw viewers to the network.

CNNfn's core demo of upscale, high-income viewers is virtually the same audience that watches tennis events on television, he noted. "The viewership is somewhat consistent, so it's not a major reach to offer tennis on CNNfn," Lazarus said.

Meanwhile, TNT will air 86.5 total hours of coverage: 75 hours during the day, three hours of late-night coverage, seven hours of late-night encores, and one-and-one-half hours of highlights and previews.

Unlike past years, TNT will present more live-action matches on weekday mornings, as well as more coverage of the lower-seeded matches, Lazarus said.

TNT opens up its coverage with a Wimbledon 2001 Highlights Show June 22 at 8:30 a.m., followed an hour later by the 30-minute Wimbledon 2002 Preview.

In addition, TNT will air a 30-minute Wimbledon Recap Show each night from June 24 to 29.

Lazarus hopes this year's coverage can surpass the 0.9 rating the network averaged in 2001.

"Ratings are tough these days, but there's tennis tournaments and there's Wimbledon — it's the tournament that all tennis viewers look forward to," he said. "It has a tradition that really separates it from the rest of the major tennis tournaments."

Once the tournament is over, TNT will have to decide whether it will renew its Wimbledon deal, which expires this year. Lazarus said the network wants to keep the tournament on TNT, but would not say how much the network would be willing to ante up in licensing fees.

TNT paid approximately $100 million for its current three-year Wimbledon package.

He noted the network would begin negotiations with the All-England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club after the tournament, although he declined to say whether the network has an exclusive negotiation window to reach a new deal.

"TNT has found a very powerful place in sports with big events, and Wimbledon certainly fits that definition," Lazarus said.

In other TNT sports news, the network signed play-by-play announcer Marv Albert to be its lead commentator for its regular- and post-season National Basketball Association telecasts. The six-year deal locks up Albert exclusively for national NBA telecasts, although Albert will still call a limited number of New York Knicks games on the Madison Square Garden Network regional sports service.

Under AOL Time Warner's six-year, $2.2 billion deal, TNT gets 52 regular-season games, mostly scheduled as exclusive Thursday-night doubleheaders, sans pro hoops competition from Fox Sports Net regional services or local TV stations.

The channel will also televise up to 45 playoff games, including the Western Conference finals and both conference-semifinal rounds in their entirety. And, in a cable first, the NBA All-Star Game will air on TNT.

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