Networks May Unite for Baseball Rights

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News Corp. is considering a partnership with another network, possibly NBC, to cover the cost of new broadcast rights for Major League Baseball.

Only last month, President Peter Chernin said Fox would walk away from baseball if the economics didn’t make sense.

Fox holds the broadcast rights to baseball’s post-season through this fall’s World Series, when its six-year, $2.6 billion deal expires. The network has lost $200 million in the deal.

Partnering with another network could alleviate some of the financial strain for Fox. One scenario being discussed: The network joins forces with NBC for one post-season package, with the networks alternating the World Series and splitting most of the games from the League Championship Series. Both Fox Sports and NBC Sports declined to comment, as did MLB. A package of two or three day games from the League Championship Series, the entire first-round (MLB’s divisional series) and the regular-season Saturday games of the week could then go elsewhere, with ESPN the most likely candidate. CBS has also had preliminary discussions with MLB but is not a likely suitor given its strength in prime time. Fox’s entertainment division is said to still covet the World Series, but it would be happy to jettison the first two rounds of the post-season. Sports consultant and former CBS Sports President Neal Pilson says he does not expect Fox to carry any first-round games as part of a new deal: “It is too disruptive for their fall schedule, and Fox wants to pay less.” Fox has enjoyed fourth-quarter success with programming, such as Prison Break, that appeals to its baseball audience. Its strategy of launching shows before the playoffs, then promoting them heavily throughout the playoffs, helped the network to a second straight season title in the adult 18-49 demo. “All I care about is if [News Corp.] delivers it, I know how to work with it,” says Fox Entertainment President Peter Liguori. But some believe that Fox and baseball still need each other.

“Baseball is a challenge on network TV but still represents an opportunity for Fox,” says John Rash, senior VP for media-buying agency Campbell Mithun. “The economics of baseball lends itself to major-market series more often, which makes the entire package more palatable for the network.”

Another advantage to having baseball is that, with fewer weeks to program regular series in the fall, the network runs fewer repeats. Says Rash, “Viewers have become highly repeat-resistant.”

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