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TBS Gears Up for MLB Season

Mar 23, 2008  •  Post A Comment

With his company now boasting four of the top draws in sports, Turner Sports President David Levy is hoping TBS’ new showcase for baseball can do for the channel what basketball did for TNT.
TBS, which dropped a longstanding run of airing Atlanta Braves games in favor of a national deal, is about to launch its first full season with Major League Baseball as part of a seven-year agreement. The cable network will get a window of games on 26 Sunday afternoons beginning April 6. (MLB’s official Opening Day is March 31.)
It got the exclusive telecast rights to the National League Championship Series last year, with the same rights in 2009, 2011 and 2013. TBS also gets the American League Championship Series in 2008, 2010 and 2012.
Sports entertainment programming is playing a more prominent role on general cable outlets, for both wide and targeted audiences. In recent years, TNT has built a franchise with the NBA; Spike set up a tentpole with the mixed martial arts organization UFC; and USA, which airs the U.S. Open, invested in bringing back the WWE, the brand that helped make the outlet mainstream.
To get in the game with Major League Baseball, TBS forked over $1.05 billion for the rights to the post-season games (which include sharing the League Championship Series with Fox) and the Sunday regular-season game package in a seven-year deal.
“We had to jump in head first last year with the playoffs without a pre-run, and it was a learning experience for us,” said Mr. Levy. “But we had such a phenomenal ratings success in our Division Series, and we look forward to seeing baseball work for us in the regular season now. These sports deals are all long-term initiatives for us, and we can move forward knowing that all of the relationships will run through at least 2014 and build from that.”
TBS already brings a strong following of adults and men 18-34 and 18-49 to the table, demos that blend well with baseball. The channel currently slates comedy series such as “Family Guy,” “Seinfeld,” “Friends” and “Everybody Loves Raymond,” in addition to recently acquiring off-net rights to “The Office” and “My Name Is Earl” for the cable outlet. It also airs first-run episodes of “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne.”
The company will use the strength of both the baseball and comedy brands to drive audiences from one to the other, similar to the way TNT used basketball to drive up interest in that outlet’s dramas.
Sports remain the hottest television property, with ratings and ad prices trending up. Last year, post-season baseball ranked third overall in national television ad spending, with $322 million, behind only the NFL and NCAA basketball tournament, according to TNS Media Intelligence.
In addition, spending on TV sports was up 26% in 2006 from the previous year and 44% from 2003, with 2007 numbers not yet available from the company. However, multiple media analysts project those numbers to spike even higher when they are announced.
As is normal with sports programming, TBS’ results from its first playoff outing were mixed, depending on the teams that were playing. The Division Series, which featured major-market teams such as the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Chicago Cubs, helped TBS feast on an 18% ratings spike over 2006’s first-round coverage on Fox and ESPN. That increase, to a 4.4 household average and 5.7 million viewers, came despite the fact that TBS is in fewer homes.
However, with the National League Championship Series coming down to the smaller-market Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks, the peaks quickly turned to valleys and produced the four lowest ratings ever for prime-time League Championship Series games.
Nevertheless, the sport brought new audiences to the channel, one of the goals of the investment.
Mr. Levy noted the Turner channels continue to be selective in which sports they would air, having inked deals now for the NBA, NASCAR and PGA Golf in addition to MLB. “It has to fit with the brand or it wouldn’t make sense for us to do the deal,” he said.
“Sports overall is a strong genre for advertisers because they know what they are getting with audiences,” said Trish Frohman, executive VP of Turner Sports Ad Sales. “When we acquire a sport, it’s because it fits with the overall bigger picture, and sports is a really important pillar of the network’s brand. As a result, when we bring in baseball, people want to be associated with that because they know it will be a priority for us.”
She noted that as a result of TBS’ deal with the MLB, TBS has brought in a number of new advertising partners for the Sunday MLB games, with sales pacing ahead of schedule. The automotive and wireless sectors are among the strongest categories the channel will be working with this season.
On the production front, Mr. Levy noted that, at least for the first season of games, the network will not create a studio show to accompany its broadcasts, unlike its post-season operations last year. The studio components, as well as the live dugout cameras and other goodies, will return during the post-season to help drive interest online and on TV during the playoffs.
“For the first time in Turner Sports’ 30-year history of MLB coverage, we’re proud to present an exciting weekly package that showcases some of the top teams and players in baseball,” said Jeff Behnke, Turner Sports executive producer. “Every Sunday afternoon for 26 straight weeks, fans will find key matchups and marquee names as we follow the dramatic storylines of the regular season leading into our second straight MLB post-season on TBS.”

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