SBJ/April 30 - May 6, 2007/Media

Net adjusts to life without the Orioles

Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic is confident that its strategy of focusing on local sports ultimately will pay off as it goes through its first season in 22 years without Baltimore Orioles baseball games.

Programs such as “Washington Post Live” are part of Comcast
SportsNet Mid-Atlantic’s emphasis on local coverage in light of
losing the rights to Baltimore Orioles baseball.

It’s still early — the baseball season is less than a month old — but the initial results are showing that replacement programming is drawing far fewer viewers so far.

For the first three weeks of April, the regional sports network has seen its prime-time ratings drop 78 percent from last year, even though one of the teams it covers, the Washington Wizards, is in the NBA playoffs.

So far this month, Comcast Mid-Atlantic has posted a 0.29 prime-time cable rating, equaling 9,724 households, through April 22. Last year, when it had Orioles games, it posted a 1.34 prime-time rating for 45,199 households through the same date.

The value of the Orioles programming can be seen in the contrast to ratings at the other local RSN, the Peter Angelos-owned Mid-Atlantic Sports Network. MASN, which is in fewer households than Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic, has posted a 1.02 prime-time rating equaling 34,427 households through April 22. Last year, when MASN did not have Orioles programming, it posted a 0.41 prime-time rating/14,418 households, through the same date. So far this year, MASN’s Orioles ratings have registered a 1.98 rating/33,300 households.

Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic had owned the rights to Orioles games since 1984, when the RSN was called Home Team Sports. This year, the rights were taken over by MASN, which also holds the rights to the Washington Nationals.

To make up for the loss of Major League Baseball, Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic is looking to emphasize local sports issues on its schedule.

Network executives are predicting that the loss of Orioles games will leave a two-month gap in their schedule, even though the MLB season runs from April through September. That’s because the network holds the rights to the NBA’s Wizards and NHL’s Washington Capitals, both of which have live games through April.

Then in July, Comcast SportsNet will focus on the most popular programming in the football-crazy region, with extensive NFL training camp coverage from the Washington Redskins, as Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic has an established relationship as the official cable network. It also will cover the Baltimore Ravens’ training camp, even though MASN is the official network of that team.

“One of the hardest parts of running regional sports networks is the fact that there’s no down time,” said Rebecca O’Sullivan-Schulte, Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic’s senior vice president and general manager. “You are usually going from season to season without any time to stop and reflect.”

Four weeks into her tenure at the RSN, O’Sullivan-Schulte was sitting in her Bethesda, Md., office talking about the local coverage plans for the network to roll out this year.

That local coverage is embodied in a daily, 90-minute chat show called “Washington Post Live,” which includes local reporters and newsmakers. The show runs live starting at 5 p.m. and is replayed at 8:30 p.m.

The local coverage also includes sporting events that occur near the D.C.-Baltimore corridor. The network will feature extensive coverage of Tiger Woods’ invitational AT&T National PGA Tour event, which will be held in suburban Maryland in July. It also plans  coverage of the two closest NASCAR races — in Dover, Del., and Richmond, Va.

But there is more local live game programming, as the network carries MLS team D.C. United, a popular draw in the region. In addition to covering 18 of the team’s 30 games live in HD, with a postgame show, the network is planning to re-air matches 72 hours later with commentary from some of the players involved. Former United and national team member Ben Olsen will host the prime-time replay.

“Now we have a lot more time to do that kind of programming,” O’Sullivan-Schulte said. “There are a lot of great stories out there about people who may not be the face of the team.”

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