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Nets Throw New Curves at Baseball Coverage

Major League Baseball will receive extensive coverage oncable this season, as ESPN, Fox Sports Net and FX step up their telecasts of the nationalpastime.

Both ESPN and FX will add alternative feeds to theirmultigame packages, while Fox Sports Net will continue to offer two games as part of itsweekly Thursday-night telecast, said representatives from both companies

Overall, ESPN will telecast 90 games during the 1998season, to be shown on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday nights, said Steve Risser, vicepresident of programming for the network.

Beginning in September, the network will provide a backupgame for markets blacked out from showing the primary game. Subscribers will either see agame on ESPN or ESPN2, Risser said.

ESPN will also continue to add several technologicaladvances, such as its "mask cam," which produces camera angles from thecatcher's mask. "We will continue to use more technological innovations toremain on the cutting edge of programming," Risser said.

Risser hopes that the network will improve on its baseballratings, which have fallen steadily since 1990. Last year, ESPN finished with a 1.48rating, down from a 1.59 in 1996. "The ratings have fallen, but what major sportsleague hasn't experienced falling ratings?" Risser asked. "With interleagueplay and the excitement over the new franchises [the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa BayDevil Rays], we feel enthusiastic about the season."

Fox Sports is also excited about its extensive baseballcoverage. Between Fox Sports Net, FX, Fox Sports' broadcasting arm and Fox'sowned-and-affiliated regional services, the company will offer more than 1,400 MLB games-- over one-half of all games played this year.

Both Fox Sports Net and FX are entering their sophomoreseasons of distributing baseball with some new wrinkles. Arthur Smith, executive producerof both Fox Sports Net's and FX's baseball coverage, said Fox Sports Net'sThursday-night national package -- distributed by the network's owned-and-affiliatedregional-sports services -- will offer more enhanced graphics, including features like the"Hot Zone," "spray charts" which show where balls have been hit aroundthe field and highlights from other games.

"The national baseball Thursday lineup serves as astrong complement to regional Fox Sports Net coverage," he said.

Meanwhile, FX, which is currently in 36 million households,will digitize its signal to offer an alternative game to blacked-out markets, said ChuckSaftler, vice president of programming for FX.

The network expects to improve on lastyear's rating, although it wouldn't reveal specific figures. FX is hoping thatthe addition of popular Fox syndicated shows NYPD Blue and TheX-Fileswill increase awareness of its Saturday-night baseball package, which moves from lastyear's Monday-night spot.