TV takes home run swing

Webs revamp skeds to pitch players

NEW YORK — The Fox Network, ESPN, the WGN superstation and the cable network FX are all vying to deliver national audiences for the games featuring the record-tying 61st — and record-breaking 62nd — home runs that Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa are expected to blast later this month.

Starting the week of Sept. 7, the Fox Network is ready to blow out its regular primetime schedule on Thursday, Friday and Saturday if either McGwire — who crushed a pair of home runs Tuesday night to give him 57 — or Sosa, who has 55, has reached the 60-homer plateau.

ESPN has already flip-flopped its planned Labor Day game of the Atlanta Braves vs. the New York Mets, downgrading it to backup in favor of the game between the Cardinals and Cubs. And ESPN and ESPN2 will combine on each of the Wednesday nights of Sept. 9, 16 and 23 to carry two games apiece, helping to guarantee that any crucial game in the home run race will get distributed nationally.

The WGN superstation, whose signal beams into more than 44 million cable and satellite homes throughout the U.S., said Tuesday that it will add five Cubs games to its schedule: against the Cards on Sept. 8, the San Diego Padres on Sept. 14 and 15 and the Milwaukee Brewers on Sept. 22 and 23. Tribune Broadcasting, which owns WGN, also owns the Cubs.

The Sept. 8 game between the Cubs and Cards will also be available on Rupert Murdoch’s FX network.

Peter Liguori, president of FX, says the network will showcase the game — the centerpiece of a six-hour block of FX programming — by making it available to every cable operator in the country as a freebie, not just to the systems that carry FX, which reaches about 36 million homes.

Regional plans

Locally, Arthur Smith, executive VP of Fox Sports, says that on Sept. 10, the regional cable networks owned by Fox/Liberty Sports have the rights to both the Cards-Reds game and the Cubs-Pirates game.

If either of them has record-setting potential for McGwire or Sosa, that game will likely get picked up by the 22 Fox/Liberty regional-sports networks throughout the U.S., relegating the local team game to a secondary channel.

Sources say the Fox Network is formulating its national broadcast plans week by week, so that if McGwire or Sosa or both still haven’t broken Roger Maris’ single-season record of 61 homers by Monday, Sept. 14, Fox will gear up to preempt more of its primetime schedule, possible on every day that week except Wednesday, when ESPN has exclusive national rights.

Fan interest in the home run contest is already building up. When TBS ran the Aug. 27 game between the Braves and Cards, the network racked up a bigger audience total than any other Braves cablecast this season, harvesting 1.9 million households with a 2.6 rating in cable homes.

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