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CBS, FOX ON DECK AFTER BASEBALL NET STRIKES OUT

There are two schools of thought about what happens now that ABC and NBC have decided to scrap – after the current season – the Baseball Network, their partnership with Major League Baseball to telecast the World Series, League Championship Series, the All-Star Game and a handful of regular-season games.

The first whispered scenario is that league owners already have a secretly negotiated multiyear contract in their back pocket from either CBS or Fox that guarantees them a license fee higher than the non-guaranteed $165 million a year projected by the Baseball Network.

Although they have different reasons, both CBS and Fox have made no secret of their desire to become the exclusive broadcast-network distributor of Major League games. CBS’ main reason is that its cupboard is bare of professional sports. It lost the rights to National Football League games to the super-aggressive Fox Network and fell short in its bid to wrest National Basketball Assn. games from NBC last year.

For Fox, a deal for baseball would give the network a year-round schedule of pro leagues: the NFL in fall and winter, the National Hockey League in winter and spring, and baseball in summer and fall.

The second school of thought, as voiced by Hal Katz, chief executive of Katz Marketing and Media, is that “baseball is in a terrible negotiating position,” damaged so badly by the 1994 strike that attendance at the games is way off and ratings are down on ESPN, on TV stations and on regional cable networks. Plus, baseball’s older-skewing demographics have made the games a tough sell on Madison Avenue.

The Major League office, however, points to a big average Nielsen rating of 20.6 for all of the World Series games between 1990 and 1993, a 15.9 average rating for the All-Star games from 1991 through 1994 and a League Championship Series average of 13.2 for ’90-93. The strike eliminated last year’s World Series and League Championships.

While CBS needs the sport, the web may be a tough sell for baseball. With the Eye web represented by extremely weak affiliates in key markets Detroit and Milwaukee, and weaker stations in major markets including Atlanta and Cleveland, Major League Baseball may be more open to a bid from Fox. Of course, distribution may take second place to money when the league takes offers.

CBS will likely argue – to both itself and the league – that baseball can put its new affiliates on the map.

While NBC and ABC say they are walking, insiders point out that they have until mid-August to officially make that decision and speculate that this could just be tough talk on their part.

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