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Fast Track

Networks May Unite For Baseball Rights

Is Fox willing to share MLB package?

News Corp. is considering a partnership with another network, possibly NBC, to cover the cost of new broadcast rights for Major League Baseball.

Only last month, President Peter Chernin said Fox would walk away from baseball if the economics didn’t make sense.

Fox holds the broadcast rights to baseball’s post-season through this fall’s World Series, when its six-year, $2.6 billion deal expires. The network has lost $200 million in the deal.

Partnering with another network could alleviate some of the financial strain for Fox. One scenario being discussed: The network joins forces with NBC for one post-season package, with the networks alternating the World Series and splitting most of the games from the League Championship Series. Both Fox Sports and NBC Sports declined to comment, as did MLB.

A package of two or three day games from the League Championship Series, the entire first-round (MLB’s divisional series) and the regular-season Saturday games of the week could then go elsewhere, with ESPN the most likely candidate. CBS has also had preliminary discussions with MLB but is not a likely suitor given its strength in prime time.

Fox’s entertainment division is said to still covet the World Series, but it would be happy to jettison the first two rounds of the post-season. Sports consultant and former CBS Sports President Neal Pilson says he does not expect Fox to carry any first-round games as part of a new deal: “It is too disruptive for their fall schedule, and Fox wants to pay less.”

Fox has enjoyed fourth-quarter success with programming, such as Prison Break, that appeals to its baseball audience. Its strategy of launching shows before the playoffs, then promoting them heavily throughout the playoffs, helped the network to a second straight season title in the adult 18-49 demo.

“All I care about is if [News Corp.] delivers it, I know how to work with it,” says Fox Entertainment President Peter Liguori.

But some believe that Fox and baseball still need each other.

“Baseball is a challenge on network TV but still represents an opportunity for Fox,” says John Rash, senior VP for media-buying agency Campbell Mithun. “The economics of baseball lends itself to major-market series more often, which makes the entire package more palatable for the network.”

Another advantage to having baseball is that, with fewer weeks to program regular series in the fall, the network runs fewer repeats.

Says Rash, “Viewers have become highly repeat-resistant.”

Journalists Safer, Pentagon Claims

Questions remain on friendly fire, detentions

Despite recent deaths, the Pentagon says it has improved the safety of journalists covering the war in Iraq, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

The Pentagon last month finally officially responded to inquiries launched last fall into journalist safety at Iraqi checkpoints and the open-ended detention of journalists in that country without charges.

In a letter to the committee, Dorrance Smith, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs and a former broadcast journalist, said that drop-off and pick-up areas for journalists entering the Green Zone are more clearly identified and new barricades have been erected.

Military commanders have also promised to work with journalism organizations to more quickly resolve issues of detentions. All seven journalists detained for long periods of time without charges have been released, but the last to be let go a few weeks ago, a cameraman working for CBS, had been detained for over a year before he was cleared. CPJ confirmed that the checkpoint improvements had been made but wrote Smith asking for an update on general checkpoint safety and the detention issue.

CPJ says more needs to be done. “We are concerned about civilians as well as journalists,” says Mideast Program Coordinator Joel Campagna. “We felt they have been put at risk by flawed checkpoint procedures.”

CPJ also wants more and better investigations of alleged “friendly fire” deaths of journalists, particularly for an April 8, 2003, U.S. missile attack on broadcaster Al Jazeera that killed one reporter.

Campagna says CPJ is pleased with the progress and the assurances from Smith, but they are taking a “trust but verify” approach.

Martin on the Move

The floodgates are starting to open at the FCC.

Following public comments by Michael Copps and media attention over gridlock, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin circulated an order reversing the FCC’s denial of multicast must-carry and informed the other commissioners that he planned to launch an omnibus ownership-regulation–review proceeding at the next open meeting (June 15), according to sources.

With the surprise confirmation of fifth commissioner—and third Republican—Robert McDowell, who was sworn in last Thursday, Martin now has the muscle to move some agenda items.

Broadcasters were buoyed by the must-carry news, while the cable industry pointed out that the FCC has twice before ruled against multicast must-carry and argued that private-carriage negotiations are the way to go, with hundreds of such negotiations completed, including a system-wide carriage deal with noncommercial stations.

Commissioners may ask that an item be put off for a vote until the following open meeting, so conceivably, McDowell could ask that the must-carry vote be delayed a month.—John Eggerton

FCC Denies Appeal; Bill To Up Smut Fines

The FCC has denied CBS’ challenge to the commission’s $550,000 fine of the CBS stations for broadcasting Janet Jackson’s 2004 Super Bowl halftime reveal, rejecting CBS’ assertion that the broadcast was not indecent.

The FCC rejected CBS’ argument that its rules are unconstitutionally vague.

CBS, which has exhausted the FCC appeals process, will now likely go to court. “CBS has apologized to the American people many times for the inappropriate and unexpected halftime incident during the 2004 Super Bowl, and we have taken steps to make certain it will never happen again,” CBS said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the fine for indecent broadcasts will be likely be raised to $325,000 per violation—a long-anticipated legislative response to the Jackson incident. The Brownback indecency bill that ups the fines is expected to come up for House vote June 6 on the “suspension calendar,” which is reserved for non-controversial items.—John Eggerton

Soccer Announcer Gets Kicked Around

With the World Cup kicking off this week, soccer aficionados are showing ESPN and ABC the yellow card for the networks’ choice of lead play-by-play announcer.

Dave O’Brien is considered one of the country’s top baseball broadcasters but is new to soccer. And while he’s covered a handful of games in the run-up to the world’s most popular single-sport event, the move has already drawn broad criticism. “I feel like I am watching Joe Garagiola announcing at the dog show: knows how to announce, knows little about the sport,” said one soccer supporter on fan site

ESPN and ABC Sports Senior VP and Executive Producer of Remote Productions Jed Drake says O’Brien is up to the challenge, but notes, “It is a bit of a calculated risk.”

O’Brien acknowledges fans’ “surprise that a so-called baseball guy is calling the sport” and has embarked on a five-month course to learn the nuances of the game. “It is like learning a new language from the ground up,” he says.

The World Cup runs June 9-July 9. ESPN is carrying every game live from Germany and in high-definition, as well as via its broadband service, ESPN360.

Univision, which will also carry every game live, though not in HD, says that, during the World Cup in 2002, 15 million of the 35 million viewers who watched the event on its network were non-Hispanic.—Ben Grossman


Fox Network’s VP of drama is Susan Levison, 32. Her name and age were incorrect in Special Report: The Next Wave of Women (B&C, 5/29, p. 19).