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Posted: Friday February 20, 2009 3:35PM; Updated: Friday February 20, 2009 4:19PM
Joe Lemire Joe Lemire >
INSIDE BASEBALL

MLB Network off to rousing start with unfiltered, sharp analysis

Story Highlights

What's remarkable about MLB Network is how well it's covered adversarial news

Ex-Deadspin boss Will Leitch: "The MLB Network is no house organ"

The MLB Network has largely succeeded where the NFL Network has failed

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Studio 42 offers a miniature ballpark, featuring a half-sized infield and even faux bullpen phones installed in each dugout.
AP

Starting tonight, the MLB Network begins its "30 Teams in 30 Days" extravaganza -- a two-host, three-crew, 3,200-mile odyssey to every spring training site for hour-long season previews of every team. It's that unprecedented depth of coverage that one would expect from a league-owned property. Certainly no other national channel would dare spend an hour of programming each on the Pirates and the Royals.

But what's remarkable about the MLB Network is how well it's covered adversarial news, proving it's not just a propaganda machine. As network president Tony Petitti said before the channel's debut, "We want to be credible. If it's important to fans, we need to cover it."

The first real test of that resolve came two weeks ago when SI.com broke the news that Alex Rodriguez had tested positive for steroids in 2003. Rather than ignore the report or downplay it, the network swooped in and covered it extensively.

This wasn't just some token acknowledgment, either. Selena Roberts, co-author of the Sports Illustrated report along with David Epstein, gave her first interview to the MLB Network less than four hours after her report published with Bob Costas asking hard questions. On Monday, reacting to A-Rod's interview with ESPN's Peter Gammons, 19-year veteran pitcher turned studio analyst Al Leiter fervently decried the notion that steroid use was rampant, as Rodriguez indicated. "This wasn't a broadstroke for all players," Leiter said, "and I take offense to that."

Media critics ranging from Newsday's Neil Best to former Deadspin editor Will Leitch gave universal praise for their coverage. "The MLB Network is no house organ," wrote Leitch. "... The network's all-day coverage, featuring Harold Reynolds, Tom Verducci, Matt Vasgersian, and the newly hired Costas, was gripping, tough, fair and completely on point. ... If the MLB Network ends up being a success, Saturday's breaking-news coverage of A-Rod will be its Hugh Grant on Leno moment."

Adds Petitti, "When this story broke, we covered it. We had thoughtful discussions. The guys on the desk had different perspectives. Getting Costas involved was a really big deal for us, and we sat down with Selena Roberts. It was an important moment for us to show that we were going to ask good questions."

It was the latest and most important step for a channel that's off to a rousing start. The MLB Network, after all, has largely succeeded where the NFL Network has failed. By offering a 1/6 stake to DirecTV and another 1/6 to iN Demand (a cable consortium led by Comcast and Time Warner, the parent company of Sports Illustrated), MLBN solved the problem of getting cable operators to carry the channel. It debuted in 50 million homes, the largest launch in cable history by some 20 million. For comparison's sake, that's 8 million more than the NFL Network has in its fifth year; ESPN reaches 96 million homes.

Thanks to the cable fees associated with that distribution, the network expects to be profitable in its first year -- even as it works to hit its stride with advertisers -- and afford its $54 million headquarters, a state-of-the-art renovation of the old MSNBC studios in Secaucus, N.J. "We can focus on the content and the production, as opposed to trying to figure out how to get people to put us on the air," says Petitti.

The centerpieces are Studio 3 (named for Babe Ruth), which houses the main broadcast set with an image-moving screen (like CNN used on election night) and a swiveling anchor desk to feature different backdrops, and Studio 42 (for Jackie Robinson), which is complete with a miniature ballpark, featuring a half-sized infield and pitcher's mound for the analysts to demonstrate techniques. Studio 42 boasts even the most subtle of touches, like faux bullpen phones installed in each dugout and a "No Pepper" warning painted on the brick backstop. (Reports, however, indicate that Petitti himself leads near-daily games of pepper. "That's the good thing about being the boss," he says with a laugh.)

The main area in which the MLB Network is still finding its groove is with its advertisers, as a striking number of its commercials are in-house ads. The national recession, of course, doesn't help, nor does that fact that it's not yet baseball season. Petitti points out that the sales staff was only fully in place as of October and that the network is "on target" for its ad sales, adding that for a baseball channel, "it's natural to think we're going to have more of a sales impact in the second and third quarters." Once that kicks in, the channel should become a cash cow.

"They have a great product, and we've heard that sales are going pretty well," says Peter Gardiner, chief media officer at Deutsch. "It's normal that a startup is not going to go from zero to sixty in just a couple of months."

The network's on-air talent is already that advanced in their zeal for the sport. Reynolds says he and Petitti play a daily game of catch, late-night wiffleball games among the pros-turned-commentators routinely break out in Studio 42, and Reynolds and Vasgersian have even ushered in a kangaroo court. At Reynolds' urging, he implemented a fun, self-policing system -- mostly inspired by his experience with the 1993 Orioles -- in which minor offenses (talent mispronouncing a word, a researcher getting a fact wrong, a producer cutting to the wrong camera, etc.) incur a fine of $1 or $2. Vasgersian is the arbiter and record keeper, with the fines to be collected for a charity such as B.A.T. (the Baseball Assistance Team, which aids down-on-their-luck former ballplayers, coaches and scouts).

With the network's Jan. 1 launch, six weeks before spring training, most of its airtime has been dedicated to replays of classic games or analysis of offseason transactions. And, yes, it can be a little repetitive -- Hot Stove, MLBN's offseason news program, was aired as many as 11 times in a 24-hour period in early January; some classic games have been repeated in their entirety for three straight days -- but it is the offseason.

"Typically when you start an all-sports network like this, common sense says the avid fans come to you first -- you build credibility with that base and the word spreads," Petitti says.

Nielsen says it hasn't started tracking the channel's viewership and the network doesn't have any internal data to release. For now the network is trying to find the balance that will satisfy the seamheads but still appeal to more casual fans.

"If we're too inside the culture, if it's too restricted to the clubhouse viewers, we're going to lose a lot of people," says Vasgersian. "To the credit of our analysts, they're aware that this is for the fans. It's not for ownership, and it's not for guys in the clubhouse."

The crown jewel of its regular programming during the season will be an eight-hour MLB Tonight, a nightly studio show with game recaps, live cut-ins, new views from the two robotic cameras the network is installing at all 30 parks and a ton of long-form analysis.

Petitti, a former executive producer at CBS Sports, has said he's hoping to replicate the feel of the way CBS covers the NCAA men's basketball tournament in the way the MLB Network broadly keeps tabs a number of games at the same time.

Already the network has offered such topics as the evolution of the utility player, complete with breakdowns of the careers of Tony Phillips and Jose Oquendo, and a close examination of the swings between a pair of great NL East third basemen, Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt and current All-Star David Wright. Reynolds ultimately concluded that the key difference was likely a result of Schmidt growing up with wood bats and Wright learning to hit with an aluminum bat (and, perhaps, from swinging at coffee lids).

The lineup of guests beyond Roberts has been stellar, too. Just minutes after the announcement of this year's Hall of Fame class, Jim Rice was on the phone; Yogi Berra and Don Larsen were in the studio to share their memories of Larsen's perfect game; and Jimmy Rollins appeared on the debut broadcast.

"Even [analyst] Barry Larkin is tickled by the access we get," says Vasgersian. Adds Reynolds, "It doesn't hurt having 'M-L-B' as our first three letters."

Of course, getting the athletes excited to participate is the other part of the battle the network is winning. When the Reds young phenom Jay Bruce visited last month, he stayed "five, six hours," says Petitti. "We interviewed him, he did a demo in Studio 42, he had lunch and then wanted to watch a show from the control room."

Spring training has barely begun, but the MLB Network is almost in midseason form.

 
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