As much baseball as fans can watch on ESPN and other networks, Major League Baseball is betting that there’s an appetite for more — enough to justify the launch of its own network Thursday. MLB Network will carry live games Thursday nights — 26 in all — but it is counting more on its “MLB Tonight” studio show, original series and classic games to entice viewers. Barry Larkin, Al Leiter, Dan Plesac, Harold Reynolds and Mitch Williams are among the studio analysts.
Time Warner Cable’s basic digital subscribers will discover that, unlike the NFL Network and MASN, the MLB Network will be available to them, on channel 139. On DirecTV, Choice subscribers will find it on channel 213.
Baseball avoided the disputes that have kept MASN and the NFL Network off the major cable services by making them co-partners in the new network. MLB gave up a reported one-third ownership stake of MLB Network to TWC, Comcast, DirecTV and Cox. As a result, the network is being launched with a huge advantage — it’s already in about 50 million TV households. MLB Network says that makes it the largest network debut in cable history.
Tony Petitti, the former CBS Sports executive who heads MLB Network, spoke Tuesday with staff writer Roger van der Horst.
N&O: With so many games on other networks like ESPN, FOX and TNT, why would the prospect of an extra 26 live games over the course of a season appeal to viewers more than what, for example, ESPN already offers?
Petitti: The games are an important part of the programming that we’re doing, but even more important really is the studio programming that we’re doing on a daily basis. The signature show is called “MLB Tonight.” It’s going to air basically every day in season from 6 p.m. until the conclusion of the last West Coast game, and what that show will do is sort of take you back to live look-ins at games, updated highlights, analysis, just sort of really going around the entire league on a regular basis. The idea is that that sort of complements the way you’re watching your local team, that you know you’ll have access to a national show whenever you want on a daily basis. And the games are meant to establish that presence of live baseball. Obviously, we need to have live games on the network, but in terms of the sheer number of hours, the “MLB Tonight” show will mean far more than the live games.
N&O: The same day that you announced that the Ken Burns documentary [“Baseball”] will air, ESPN put out an announcement that it’s going to start showing classic game replays, starting Jan. 5. Are you essentially competing with your broadcast partners?
Petitti: There’s no doubt that we will compete because we’re on up against each other, but to the extent that ESPN does baseball programming, that’s good for baseball. My job is to get people to watch the network here, to provide a 24/7 home. I think the difference will be that we are all baseball all the time. That’s a point of distinction. Having said that, ESPN provides great coverage of baseball, which is still important to baseball as well, and what we’re trying to do is give fans a little bit different access than they may have had to the content of baseball because we’re doing it on a regular basis. We feel pretty strongly that we’re going to be a great destination for baseball fans.
N&O: Can you elaborate on how you can be different?
Petitti: No. 1 is the consistency in the 24/7 [programming]. I think the “MLB Tonight” show is very different than any programming right now. There’s really nothing that covers the game nationally like that show is going to do. I think the consistency, the fact that we have an hour “Hot Stove” show every night in the offseason. Weeknights are very important. I don’t think there’s anybody covering over the air the offseason the way we’re going to cover it. So I think all that points to a distinction, the volume of the taped programming that we’ll do, all those things coming together, so it’s not really any one program element. It’s the fact that you put all that together, that’s what we offer that’s different.
N&O: Do you see an opportunity to focus more on teams that maybe don’t get the same coverage on other networks?
Petitti: That’s a good point. What we’re trying to do is to be about all 30 clubs. I think you’ll start to see that we’re going to provide national coverage. Each of the clubs is covered locally very well, but we’re going to cover the totality of what’s going on in the season. Obviously, as you move toward the end of the season, the teams that are driving toward the playoffs are going to deserve more of the coverage. But there’s no predicting who that’s going to be, so we’ll cover everybody early on. We’ll continue to do that even as the playoff races heat up. But we’ll probably give a little extra attention to the teams that are really playing for the postseason. That’s just a natural way of covering.
N&O: One of your initial programs is going to be Don Larsen’s perfect [1956 World Series] game. It does seem as if there’s a great opportunity to replay all-time great games. What are your plans in that regard?
Petitti: We’ll have an umbrella series, of which the Larsen game is the first one in that series. We’re gonna go back and find games that were compelling, whether they’re postseason games, high-strikeout games. We’ll do theme weeks, you know, the games where you saw 20-strikeout performances or 19-strikeout performances, games where a player may have hit four home runs, games that were dramatic in terms of their impact on the postseason. The Larsen game, I think, was a little unique because it’s very much a piece of broadcast history. It really hasn’t been seen. On top of that, it sort of has its own feel. But there are many other moments and games in baseball history that we’re going to rely on. We’ll try to bring something unique to the telecasts of those games so when you’re watching it, you’ll see something or learn something new about that actual telecast.
N&O: Are there any rights issues for MLB Network in what you can rebroadcast?
Petitti: Basically, the content flows from baseball. We have access to that great library, which is a great resource to have. We’re able to reach into that library and either use what exists to create programming or take what exists and run it as programming, so we have two options there.
N&O: What are your expectations for the first year in terms of viewership?
Petitti: I wouldn’t really be able to give you a number. We have 50-million-plus homes, which is a great way to start in terms of distribution. But it’s our job to build awareness. Over time, awareness will continue to grow. There seems to be a nice buzz about the network right now in terms of awareness among baseball fans. We want to fan that out and expand our reach. As people know and get accustomed to the fact that we’re there, as the natural baseball calendar comes into place in March and April, our audience will grow, and we’ll see where it goes from there.
N&O: Is there a segment of people that you consider a target audience?
Petitti: No, I think what we’re trying to do is put out compelling programming. It’s more than likely the network will appeal to a male demographic, but we think we’ve got programming that will appeal across the board. The thing that we think we’ve got that’s gonna be a huge advantage is the amount of live hours we’re talking about for a start-up network. It’s about 1,400. That’s is a pretty large number of live hours for a first-year network.
N&O: Was the deal with the TV service providers [like Time Warner and DirecTV] born out of having seen what has happened with the NFL Network and the cable companies?
Petitti: That was in place before I was there. ... I don’t think they focused on anybody else in the business. They just thought this was a good business deal for baseball to do it this way. It’s been put in place, and basically, every decision from that point forward, the distribution drives the way we’re doing things here. I don’t think we would be built out the way we are without those homes, so it’s a great advantage to have. You’re always looking at what your competition is doing, what you can learn from them, what works, what doesn’t work, but in baseball’s case, bringing in partners made the most sense.
N&O: Is there original programming yet to be established? How far along are you in the process of inventing programs?
Petitti: We’ve got some series. We created a series called “Prime 9,” which talks about the all-time nine greatest moments or greatest centerfielders, whatever it may be. We also have a series called “Baseball’s Seasons” where it looks back at the greatest years in baseball. So we have ideas like that, but obviously over time, there will be many more programs added to the schedule. Right now, we’ve got a template for the first couple of months. From there, like any network, you look back, you evaluate it, you get new ideas, things you’d like to try, so the program schedule evolves over time.