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World Wrestling Entertainment last night at the Int'l Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas announced the creation of WWE Network, a full-time, over-the-top digital network combining live and on-demand content. The digital video will be supported by MLB Advanced Media, marking the second big outside contract announcement in as many days for baseball's digital arm. WWE Network content will include all of the property's pay-per-view specials, including WrestleMania, and carry a cost of $9.99 per month with a minimum six-month commitment. The direct-to-consumer subscription cost represents a massive discount from linear TV PPV costs from all its combined events, but WWE execs intend to make up the revenue shortfall and then some through increased scale, with project profitability at around 1 million subscribers. The net will launch Feb. 24, and be available through a large array of connected devices, including online, mobile, video game consoles, and Roku streaming boxes. WWE's existing cable programming, including Monday Night Raw and Friday Night Smackdown, will be maintained and supported with pre- and post-shows on WWE Network (Eric Fisher, Staff Writer). VARIETY's Marc Graser reported WWE execs "chose the February launch date because it follows the 'Elimination Chamber' PPV and kicks off the six-week ramp up to 'WrestleMania 30,' treated by the company as its Super Bowl." WWE Chief Revenue & Marketing Officer Michelle Wilson said, "We looked at when the best time of year was to launch this, and felt 'WrestleMania 30' was a great hook." Content on the new net "won’t be exclusively PG the way its current line up of TV shows are," as programming will feature "a range of series, with content rated TV-14 or TV-MA preceded by advisory messages." Parental controls "are also available" (VARIETY.com, 1/8).
NEW APPROACH: In L.A., Joe Flint cites regulatory filings as showing the WWE "first started talking about the network about five years [ago] and has spent" more than $40M on development. WWE initially "planned on a commercial cable network," then it "toyed with a pay channel model similar to HBO." WWE Chair Vince McMahon said that while a more traditional channel "could ensure a certain level of distribution," the terms pay-TV distributors "wanted in return for carrying a WWE channel were 'too restrictive.'" He added that the promotion had deals "ready to go with major distributors for a network that would have generated fees of 20 cents per month, per subscriber." The WWE instead "looked at how Netflix was able to create an OTT service and became convinced that its own rabid fan base would embrace a similar approach." The decision to go with an OTT service "may dampen the WWE's relationship with the cable and satellite operators that currently distribute their pay-per-view specials." The WWE said that it will "still offer its specials to cable and satellite operators." The net will be "mostly commercial-free but there will be sponsorship opportunities for advertisers" (L.A. TIMES, 1/9). MULTICHANNEL NEWS' R. Thomas Umstead noted the net will "launch with several new, original series such as The Monday Night War, a series exploring the mid-90s rivalry between WWE and WCW; WrestleMania Rewind, a comprehensive look back at the biggest moments of the WWE’s franchise PPV event; WWE Countdown, an interactive countdown series; and WWE NXT, featuring up-and coming Superstars and Divas" (MULTICHANNEL.com, 1/8).
BANG FOR THE BUCK? The WALL STREET JOURNAL's Merissa Marr notes the per month price point "pitches the network above direct-to-consumer services such as Netflix Inc. but below sports offerings like Major League Baseball's MLB.tv, which cost $7.99 and $25 a month, respectively." WWE said that it "didn't want to breach the psychological barrier of $10" (WALL STREET JOURNAL, 1/9). In Philadelphia, Vaughn Johnson writes the net offers "tremendous value for the amount of content that will be at the tips of people’s fingers." The price point, granted, comes "with a six-month commitment, but that’s still only $60.00 for six pay-per-views, which costs nearly $60.00 per month." Something to "keep an eye on is how good the streaming quality will be." There were numerous reports of the WrestleMania XXIX stream on WWE’s website "failing multiple times last year," which "explains the reason for the company working with" MLBAM (PHILLY.com, 1/9).
ROLLING THE DICE: AD WEEK's Sam Thielman wrote the net is an "undeniably gutsy move for the entertainment company and one likely to raise its profile, but it's also a costly one." WWE Exec VP/Digital Media Perkins Miller said that the net would "include bells and whistles like push notifications for the networks' mobile app, which will also stream the shows on your smartphone when you're not at home and provide second-screen content when you are." The promotion has "one of the few back catalogs that hasn't yet been monetized by a streaming service; this new experiment will demonstrate exactly how well a single fandom can support a single stream of content" (ADWEEK.com, 1/8).
ESPN's Dan Le Batard this morning explained his rationale for handing his ballot for the Baseball HOF over to Deadspin readers, saying he has been trying to "instigate change ... unsuccessfully" in the voting process for 10 years. He said on ESPN Radio's "Mike & Mike," "I haven’t attracted the amount of attention in 10 years trying this that I did just yesterday.” Le Batard said he was surprised by the "enormity of the disconnect between fans and viewers and listeners and readers, who were overwhelmingly positive, and my brethren, who were overwhelmingly not." He said, "I was not expecting that kind of difference. I thought more of my peers would come to my side and I thought more fans would be disgusted with me and feel like I was just attention seeking.” Le Batard acknowledged he should have "waited a day" before revealing himself as the source of the Deadspin ballot. He added, "I should have done it on our platforms instead of on Deadspin ... although I don’t know that I could have done it quite as effectively on ESPN’s platforms because I’ve been trying to do it on ESPN’s platforms in some ways or another. But it was Deadspin’s idea, not mine, and not ESPN’s” ("Mike & Mike," ESPN Radio, 1/9). Le Batard yesterday said on his WAXY-AM radio show, "The baseball writers are beating me up. They’re saying I’m a joke, an attention seeker. I’m not looking for the attention. Honestly I’m not. I’m interested in bringing attention to this. My ballot is clean, and so is my conscience, by the way. ... I don’t know if I’m going to be suspended or what, but I’m on the right side of the principle here" (MIAMI HERALD, 1/9).
POTENTIAL PUNISHMENT UNKNOWN: In N.Y., Anthony McCarron notes while Le Batard "wrote that he expected to be stripped of his vote, it’s unclear what, if any, punishment he’ll face." Baseball Writers' Association of America Secretary-Treasurer Jack O’Connell yesterday "would not comment on the matter" (N.Y. DAILY NEWS, 1/9). BBWAA President LaVelle Neal said, "When you accept a Baseball Writer's card, there's a certain way you need to go about your business, there's a certain conduct you need to have at all times. It's just disappointing that someone would decide to manipulate his vote in that way." Neal said the BBWAA BOD is "meeting to discuss" possible disciplinary action against Le Batard, but "if other things come out of that committee meeting" in terms of revamping the voting process "so be it." Neal: "When you have a voting body of 560, 570 people, you're going to have a couple of crackpots. ... We can't always weed those people out but we can always just look at ways to improve our process" (STARTRIBUNE.com, 1/8). Le Batard hosts both a daily TV and radio show on ESPN's airwaves, and also is a freelance columnist for the Miami Herald, where he first got his HOF ballot. ESPN VP/PR Josh Krulewitz in a statement said network officials "respect and appreciate Dan’s opinions and passion about Hall of Fame voting." Krulewitz: "We wouldn’t have advocated his voting approach, which we were just made aware of today." Miami Herald Exec Sports Editor Jorge Rojas in a statement said, "Whatever issues might be raised about the Hall of Fame voting process, we do not condone misrepresentation of any kind. Dan had a point to make. We think there are other ways he could have made it" (THE DAILY).
WRITERS NOT HOLDING BACK OPINIONS: Many of Le Batard's BBWAA colleagues offered sharp retorts of his decision. The N.Y. Daily News' Mark Feinsand said, "The writers who cover the sport earn the right to vote and don’t earn the right to allow others to cast their votes. If you don’t think your vote means anything, then don’t vote." The N.Y. Daily News' Bill Madden added, "It's sad that one of our members would do this" (MIAMI HERALD, 1/9). ESPN's Tony Kornheiser said the BBWAA should "sooner than immediately" revoke Le Batard's voting. Kornheiser: "What's not good is if you say, 'My ego is such I laugh at you and I spit in your face and give my vote away.'" ESPN's Michael Wilbon said it is "sanctimonious for Le Batard to offer up this garbage because when you have a radio show that is now national, a television show that's national every day, you write columns ... you have a big, fat voice that can reach everyone" ("PTI," ESPN, 1/8). In Boston, Dan Shaughnessy wrote effecting change "from within is difficult" and "anonymous betrayal and ridicule is easy." Shaughnessy: "A stand-up guy would have recused himself" (BOSTON GLOBE, 1/9). MLB.com's Tracy Ringolsby wrote on Twitter, "If I had respect for Dan LeBatard I don't anymore. If he didn't want HOF vote should have declined it, not give away to non-qualified voter." CBSSports.com's Jon Heyman: "Shame on the sanctimonious attention seeker who turned his vote over to a website. #sad." The S.F. Chronicle's Henry Schulman: "THIS is a 'look-at-me' act." Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Jeff Schultz: "I don't care how messed up the Hall of Fame voting process is. Dan LeBatard is a clown for giving his vote to @Deadspin." But ESPN Chicago's Jon Greenberg: "Wow, Le Batard was the Deadspin voter. Good for you, Dan" (TWITTER.com, 1/8).
ANY PUBLICITY IS GOOD PUBLICITY? ESPN Radio's Mike Greenberg said Le Batard's decision to give his vote to Deadspin was done at least partially "to attract attention to himself." Greenberg: "Dan Le Batard has now made this a national conversation because of the way he chose to do it. He could have ranted and raved on radio and television and no one would have paid any attention the moment his conversation ended. Now people are paying attention" (“Mike & Mike,” ESPN Radio, 1/9). In Miami, Greg Cote wrote, "I love that my buddy Dan must now act as if he'd have preferred none of this get out when in fact this is publicity gold, effing gold, for somebody with a daily radio show who fancies himself a cutting edge establishment-tweaker" (MIAMIHERALD.com, 1/8). CBSSPORTS.com's Gregg Doyel wrote, "I judge this vote, what he did, as shortsighted and stupid, shockingly so for someone so intelligent." Doyel: "Le Batard's too smart to believe what he did will affect actual change, which tells me he did it for the attention he'd get" (CBSSPORTS.com, 1/8).
NBCOlympics.com as part of its Sochi Games coverage will offer original, digital-only programming including whip-around competition coverage from "Gold Zone"; a daily figure skating news and highlights show, "Olympic Ice"; and regular news updates throughout each day of competition via the website's "Olympic News Desk" updates. Gold Zone, beginning on Feb. 8 as an exclusive video channel on NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports Live Extra app, will offer more than 100 hours of whip-around coverage of the most popular live action from the Sochi Games. The channel will stream from 7:00am-3:00pm ET on most days. Gold Zone hosts Andrew Siciliano and Ryan Burr will provide context to what is being streamed. Olympic Ice, a studio show, will review all of the figure skating news and highlights each day during the Games. It will air at 5:30pm on most days, from Feb. 7-21. Russ Thaler will host the 30-minute show, and will be joined by analyst and former figure skater Sarah Hughes. Olympic News Desk, hosted by Julie Donaldson, will stream updates periodically throughout the day and unauthenticated on NBCOlympics.com (NBC). MULTICHANNEL NEWS' Mike Reynolds noted Gold Zone is "redolent of the ad-hoc highlights services proffered by DirecTV and NFL Network spotlighting pro football action on Sundays." NBC Olympics President Gary Zenkel said that the network had "deployed a similar service, sans hosts, during the London Games." However, viewers during the '12 Summer Games "were only alerted to what was coming next on the service by NBC staffers’ tweets." Zenkel believes Gold Zone will "hold significant appeal to Olympic fans who are more interested in lean-back experience, rather than searching across NBCOlympics’ 1,000 hours of live-stream action" (MULTICHANNEL.com, 1/8).
ON CLOUD NINE: BROADCASTING & CABLE's George Winslow noted NBC Olympics has selected Akamai Technologies to "provide a complete suite of cloud services for online video streaming delivery, site performance and security services for the company’s production" of the Sochi Games. NBC Olympics "will be using Akamai Digital Media solutions to stream all 98 events, including every medal competition, event highlights, and athlete interviews and profiles." Akamai also is "supporting DVR functions such as pause and event rewinds" (BROADCASTINGCABLE.com, 1/8).
Phillies TV analysts Chris Wheeler and Gary Matthews yesterday were "removed from the Phillies broadcast booth" by CSN Philadelphia, according to Matt Gelb of the PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER. Sources said that the decisions were made by CSN Philadelphia "as a result of their 25-year contract agreement last week with the Phillies for the team's TV rights." Comcast "gained some editorial control over the broadcasts under the terms of the new deal." Phillies Senior VP/Marketing & Advertising Sales Dave Buck said that the RSN "will oversee the search for Wheeler's replacement, who will be hired as a Comcast SportsNet employee." The team's TV broadcasters "were previously Phillies employees." Wheeler has been with the team for 37 years and Matthews has been with the team for seven, and both "will remain Phillies employees." They were "sometimes criticized by viewers, which factored into Comcast's decision." In addition, Matthews worked with play-by-play announcer Tom McCarthy "for the fourth, fifth and sixth innings of games." Comcast "wants a consistent two-man booth for the entire game and will replace Wheeler and Matthews with one person." Comcast is "expected to hire a former Phillies player." Gregg Murphy "will return as a TV field reporter." Play-by-play announcer Scott Franzke, analyst Larry Andersen and pre- and postgame host Jim Jackson "will remain on radio," and their status as Phillies employees "will not be affected by the new TV contract" (PHILLY.com, 1/8). The AP's Rob Maaddi wrote Wheeler's "breezy, easygoing personality and familiar voice were a staple for generations of Phillies fans, many of whom immediately expressed their sadness over the move through social media, talk radio and other outlets" (AP, 1/8). ESPN's Keith Olbermann said removing Wheeler and Matthews "is insane" because the "broadcasters you just fired are better than the team you're putting on the field next year" ("Olbermann," ESPN2, 1/8).
OUT OF CHARACTER: In Philadelphia, Bob Ford writes the history of the Phillies, "for better or worse ... has always been a testament to a certain hidebound consistency." Things "change slowly, if at all." That is why yesterday's announcement was "more than a small surprise." The Phillies "just don't do that kind of thing." Maybe that is "the price of doing business now, but Wheeler won't get the chance to commemorate his long on-air career with a final broadcast." The "old Phillies ... would have announced in spring training that Wheeler had decided this would be his final year and he would have gotten the farewell tour and the decency of a more dignified exit after nearly 40 years in the booth." Comcast execs "ain't that sentimental, apparently" (PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER, 1/9). Also in Philadelphia, Sam Donnellon writes under the header, "Phillies' TV Shake-Up Has All The Markings Of A Comcast Shake-Up" (PHILADELPHIA DAILY NEWS, 1/9).
ESPN yesterday announced that Ian Darke will be its lead play-by-play commentator for coverage of the FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Darke will call the Brazil-Croatia opening match on June 12 in Sao Paulo, as well as the tournament final and all of the U.S. team's matches. THE DAILY also has learned that Derek Rae will do play-by-play from Brazil, though ESPN has not established a pecking order for the broadcast teams. Rae did play-by-play for several ESPN matches during the '10 World Cup in South Africa and serves as the lead announcer for BT Sport’s coverage of the Scottish Premier League. Meanwhile, ESPN yesterday also said that it has ended its relationship with Martin Tyler, who served as the net's lead English-language play-by-play commentator for the '10 World Cup. Tyler is now free to work with other media partners during this year's World Cup (THE DAILY).
UPPING THE ANTE: In London, Christopher Williams reports BT and BSkyB "may have to engage in a new multi-billion-pound battle for pay-TV supremacy as early as this year," because the EPL "wants to bring forward the next auction of football broadcasting rights by up to six months." The plan has "been aired by the Premier League in private meetings with broadcasters and has met some opposition." BSkyB and BT are "already paying record sums for rights." Sources said that the Premier League was "suspected of 'opportunism' in attempting to exploit the fierce competition between BSkyB and BT, and the resulting increase in the value of sports rights." The pair "paid more than" US$4.9B between them last time they bid in '12. The rights on the block will cover three EPL seasons, beginning with the '16-17 campaign. It is "understood" that the EPL has "informally suggested BSkyB and BT would be invited to bid as early as this December rather than after the end of the next football season" in June '15 (London TELEGRAPH, 1/9).
In Minneapolis, Phil Miller reports the Twins are in negotiations with former MLBer Jack Morris "to bring him back to Minneapolis as part of its broadcast team, a position he held on a part-time basis for eight seasons." Morris, who yesteday failed to be elected to the Baseball HOF in his final year on the ballot, joined Sportsnet for Blue Jays games "as a color analyst on the radio last season, after appearing intermittently on Twins broadcasts" from '05-12. The Twins "have an opening in their TV and radio lineup, created when Ron Coomer was hired by the Cubs to join their radio broadcasts" (STARTRIBUNE.com, 1/9).
TRIPLE OPTION: THE MMQB's Richard Deitsch noted Fox "awarded the team of Kevin Burkhardt and John Lynch with the call of Saturday’s Saints-Seahawks game," along with Erin Andrews on the sidelines. The divisional playoff assignment is given by Fox "to the team they felt had the best season behind lead announcers Joe Buck and Troy Aikman." Fox Sports Exec Producer John Entz said, “We’ve found Kevin, John and Erin to be a really enjoyable and comfortable broadcast team. They have fantastic chemistry both on and off the air and it shows during their broadcasts. Both (producer) Pete Macheska and (director) Artie Kempner deserve a huge amount of credit for bringing this crew as far along as they have in such a short amount of time" (MMQB.SI.com, 1/8).
HERE & THERE: FS1's "Fox Sports Live" hosts Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole "are switching their working schedule." As of Tuesday, the duo is working the 11:00pm ET show from Tues.-Sat. (SI.com, 1/5)....Tennis Channel is expanding HOFer Jim Courier's roster of assignments to include the Australian Open. Courier will have a nightly presence during the net's two-week coverage (Tennis Channel)....Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic hired Keli Fulton to serve as an anchor and reporter for "Geico SportsNet Central" beginning this week. She also will contribute to the RSN's other programming. Fulton spent three years with WPTV-NBC and WFLX-Fox in West Palm Beach (CSN)....ESPN Radio 980 DC afternoon co-host Steve Czaban "has signed a three-year extension" (WASHINGTONPOST.com, 1/7).
Rogers Communications yesterday announced it has expanded its partnership with MLB with a first-to-market launch of MLB Network in Canada on Rogers digital TV and an eight-year multiplatform broadcast rights extension with MLB, MLBAM and Sportsnet through '21. The extension includes comprehensive multimedia rights for TV, online and mobile. Sportsnet under the deal will continue to carry nearly 300 games annually, including the All-Star Game, Home Run Derby and postseason games including the World Series. Sportsnet has broadcast MLB games since '03 (Rogers).
BIRD WORDSMITHS: In Baltimore, Eduardo Encina reported Orioles radio broadcasts will remain on WBAL-AM "for at least the next two seasons." A source said that the team and the station have "finalized a multiyear deal for WBAL to remain the Orioles' radio affiliate." The source added that Joe Angel and Fred Manfra, who "have called Orioles radio broadcasts together" since '04, "will also return." A "previous three-year deal with WBAL expired at the end of this season." Specifics of the new deal "are not known, but it is structured as a revenue-sharing partnership between the two sides" (BALTIMORESUN.com, 1/8).
DRAW, PARTNER: The Cowboys in '13 were featured in five of the top 10 most-watched regular-season NFL games. The NFL's most-viewed regular-season game in '13 was Raiders-Cowboys on Thanksgiving with 31.7 million viewers. The Cowboys, Broncos and Packers appeared in nine of the top 10 most-watched NFL regular-season games, with the outlier being Fox' Seahawks-49ers in the national window on Dec. 8 with 27.7 million viewers (NFL).
GLOBE TROTTER: In Boston, Chris Cassidy notes Red Sox co-Owner John Henry yesterday "told the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce he was looking to hire" a COO for the Boston Globe, which he purchased last year. Henry also said that the paper "will soon develop a Globe television network." But Henry was "short on details about other initiatives he has in mind." He "spoke vaguely about finding new ways to recruit sponsors and advertisers for Globe content." Henry added the Globe would be "aggressively relevant" (BOSTON HERALD, 1/9).