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Attention all sportscasters, dish heads and sports-bar owners: Big Brother, in the person of baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth, is watching you.
This is the year of Ubie's Great Video Crackdown. To protect their product, the commissioner and his minions have scrambled almost a third of baseball's TV signals, blacking out America's 2.1 million satellite dish owners—including both the guy who has one in his backyard and the station owner with one on the office roof—in part to curry favor with the networks and cable, with whom baseball soon will negotiate new TV deals. The networks are turning cartwheels since the scrambling eliminates pirated baseball games as an alternative for dish owners to regular network programming. But local sportscasters who depend upon the dishes for the highlights they show on their nightly telecasts are crying foul.
Baseball is well within its rights to scramble its signals, which are the copyrighted property of the individual major league teams. Nobody wants to give away his product for free. It's the manner in which the crackdown has been imposed—without warning and with no thought for the hardships caused—that angers many stations, especially those in backwater markets with limited funds. "Babies will still be born and bombs will still go off in Beirut, but there will be no major league baseball in Cheyenne, Wyoming," says Brian Olson, news director of KGWN-TV in Cheyenne.
The primary focus of the scrambling has been on so-called backhaul signals—transmissions back to the visiting team's home city, such as a Cardinals-at-Mets game carried by KPLR in St. Louis. By scrambling the backhaul signals of an estimated 700 games—approximately 1,800 baseball games are televised every year—the commissioner and his TV strategist, Bryan Burns, have forced local stations to pay substantial amounts in fees and special equipment costs to unscramble the signals. Major league baseball's TV production licensee. Phoenix Communications, does send out a daily package of highlights, but only one station in each market is allowed to purchase the package, often in exchange for airtime that Phoenix then sells to local advertisers. Most other stations in the same market must make do without the pre-edited package—or pay $3,500 per dish for a box to decode the scrambled transmissions. Since many stations use as many as six dishes to gain access to games played simultaneously, the decoder charges can total $21,000 per year, an onerous amount for the small independent station.
"It's like organized crime asking for protection money," grumbles Keith Olbermann, formerly with independent KTLA-TV, now sports director for network-owned KCBS, in L.A. "Organized crime says, We'll break your legs if you don't pay for what you got for free. Well, our legs are satellite dishes."
Not content just to control current transmissions, the commissioner's office has also decided to reap the maximum profit from "stock" footage, officially defined as any clips at least 36 hours old. That definition puts pictures of Al Gionfriddo's World Series catch in 1947 in the same category as Darryl Strawberry's home run of three days ago.
Phoenix Communications has video watchdogs in all the major markets and has begun billing television sportscasters whenever they show stock footage. In April, when Frank Robinson was hired as manager of the Orioles, Warner Wolf of WCBS in New York used a brief clip showing Robinson in the World Series during his playing days with Baltimore. Not long after the airing, Wolf was astonished to get a bill from Phoenix for $250, which included $50 for "research," even though Wolf says he got the film out of the WCBS archives. Wolf sent the bill back along with a note to Burns expressing his opposition to the policy. To Wolfs knowledge, and to Burns's credit, the bill has never appeared again.
"This is absurd. It's totally crazy," says Wolf indignantly. "Telecasters like me showing highlights is the biggest promotion major league baseball has. If we are forced to stop the highlights, I guarantee you that baseball attendance will go down. They're punching themselves in the nose."
Asked whether the value of free publicity doesn't outweigh whatever financial losses baseball might suffer by giving sportscasters a break, Burns says, "Who says? It's our call. At some point you've just got to pull the garage door down."
Perhaps so, but baseball has done exceptionally well with an open-door policy in the past. Why tamper with success? Ease up on the sportscasters, Ubie. They're the guys who helped to build the business in the first place.