TBS future: Braves-less

ANAHEIM – TBS will likely lose its right to cablecast Atlanta Braves baseball games, which for more than a decade have propelled the superstation into the cable stratosphere, helping it finish among the two or three highest-rated cable networks year after year.

This potentially devastating news for TBS comes from Dave Almsted, senior VP of acquisition rights for the Fox Sports Networks, who says ESPN and Fox’s FX, both of which share an exclusive national cable package of Major League Baseball games, are negotiating a dramatic phase-out of Braves games on TBS.

Although TBS might get some weekly Braves games in 1997 – Almsted wouldn’t give an exact number – that figure would be scaled back drastically in 1998 and could zero out before the turn of the century. TBS has typically carried about 125 Braves games each year.

Almsted’s comments came Wednesday during the opening day of the Western Cable Show, shortly after Turner Broadcasting System chairman, president and CEO Terry McGuirk neglected to mention the phase-out after the programming panel session, while telling reporters he was optimistic TBS will be able to carry up to 100 Braves games starting in 1997 – a number that Fox Sports disputes.

TBS has to seek permission for Braves carriage next year because the network plans to change the way it distributes its signal: Instead of being a superstation, TBS will become a regular cable network like competitors ESPN and FX, and thus will run up against the exclusive deals these two have for cable rights to baseball.

The reason TBS is shifting its distribution strategy away from being a superstation is that, as a superstation, TBS has to forego monthly per-subscriber license fees from cable operators, a giant revenue stream that, according to Paul Kagan Associates, funnels $509 million a year into the coffers of ESPN and $358 million to TNT, to take the most notable examples.

McGuirk says TBS is banking on a revenue harvest from cable system license fees of at least $100 million a year when it completes its new contracts with cable operators, which won’t get signed until the baseball issue is resolved.

Fox Sports’ Almsted, interviewed at the FX booth on the exhibition floor of the Anaheim Convention Center, said the reason he and ESPN are insisting on the eventual end of Braves games on TBS is that the glut of nationally cablecast baseball is already harming the Nielsen ratings of ESPN, and bodes ill for the two games a week FX will begin running in April 1997.

Buying time

Other sources say the phase-out is a compromise that will allow TBS to convince cable operators that the network has time to replace Braves games with programming of equal audience potential, everything from theatrical movies to original series to rerun sitcoms like Warner Bros. Domestic’s “Friends,” which starts on TBS in 1998.

And when the Major League Baseball contract comes up for renewal in a couple of years, Turner could very well challenge ESPN and FX for exclusive national cable rights.

Speaking of the cable rights to National Football League Sunday-night games and National Basketball Assn. games, both of which are contracted for one more season after the current one, McGuirk acknowledged that the bidding is likely to elevate the price as Fox and CBS open their checkbooks, along with the deep-pocketed Walt Disney Co., which now owns ESPN. Turner’s TNT already shares the current NFL cable rights with ESPN, but Turner has the exclusive national cable rights to the NBA, parceling out the games between TNT and TBS.

But despite cutthroat competition for the NFL and NBA, McGuirk says, “We’re committed to retaining these rights.”

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