For 32 years the Saturday Game of the Week has brought baseball to viewers hundreds of miles from the nearest major league city. Former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth undermined that tradition, and only his successor, Bart Giamatti, can shore it up.
In December, Ueberroth negotiated a four-year, $1.08 billion contract that, starting next season, will make CBS baseball's exclusive over-the-air network. Out in the cold are NBC, which has telecast baseball since 1947—and which has aired the Game of the Week on Saturday since 1957—and ABC, which has done games on other days of the week since '76. In addition, Ueberroth made a groundbreaking $400 million deal under which ESPN will carry baseball 175 times in each of the next four seasons.
According to the new contract, CBS will telecast baseball only 12 times during the regular season and will be allowed to pick these games at random. By contrast, NBC will have 32 baseball broadcasts this season and ABC eight, giving fans over-the-air network coverage on virtually a weekly basis. Ueberroth claimed that ESPN's coverage will compensate for the cutback next year, but he couldn't be more wrong. Indeed, unless Giamatti and CBS come to their senses and amend it, the new contract will stand as the greatest calamity in baseball's 69-year broadcast history.
It's axiomatic in sports that exposure begets promotion begets national appeal. The NFL gained enormous popularity after it expanded its TV coverage from two networks to three in 1970. When baseball went from one network to two in '76, it, too, embarked on a period of unparalleled popularity. The Ueberroth deal ignores these lessons; instead, it will make baseball the first sport to voluntarily reduce its number of over-the-air networks.
ESPN's baseball coverage sounds impressive until one realizes that cable reaches only 55% of the nation's 90 million TV homes. In other words, almost 50% of America will depend entirely on CBS for its network coverage. A bizarre imbalance will result: 187 network games for half the country; 12 for the other half.
The new arrangement benefits the affluent while disenfranchising those who are unable to get cable for geographic reasons or who cannot afford it: pensioners, shut-ins, children and inhabitants of inner cities, farms and small towns. The Game of the Week has been their umbilical cord to baseball. And even some of those with cable at home will be left in the dark because it's during the baseball season that Americans are most transient, vacationing in places untouched by cable: the mountains, the beach, even the backyard. What does baseball suggest? Should we carry coaxial cable in our duffel bags? For too many fans, the pastime will now be out of sight. How long before it is out of mind?
In negotiating the new contracts with CBS and ESPN, Ueberroth was padding the owners' pockets (in 1990 each team will receive an estimated $14 million a year for national TV rights, compared with $7 million per annum under the present six-year deal) at the public's expense. He knew that CBS, with its failing prime-time schedule, needed baseball's playoffs and World Series so desperately that it would pay almost anything to get them. So what if CBS, because of other sports commitments, couldn't air a game every Saturday? The network wanted exclusivity, and all Ueberroth cared about was the money.
Defending the indefensible, Ueberroth said that local coverage will pacify baseball fans not reached by cable. This is an absurdity. More than 100 million viewers have no access to cable or local over-the-air baseball telecasts. In fact, local over-the-air coverage during Ueberroth's five-year tenure declined by 8% as clubs put more and more of their games on regional pay cable. Giamatti should move quickly to revive weekly over-the-air network coverage of the game. He must know that with an every-other-other-other-other-week telecast, viewers will get out of the habit of watching baseball. And if that's the case, even viewer-ship during the playoffs and World Series might suffer.
Let Giamatti appeal to CBS's self-interest. Have the network air its 12 weekend afternoon games but encourage it to consider telecasts at other times as well. It could air national games at 8 p.m. on Saturdays, for example, bumping the network's hapless summertime Saturday-night lineup. Or it could carry 8 p.m. West Coast games during late-night slots in the East. In either case, CBS would likely get higher ratings from baseball than it does from its current fare. And, mercifully, fans would be able to see more of the national pastime on TV than they otherwise would.
Curt Smith is the author of "Voices of the Game, "about baseball broadcasters.