Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn said yesterday that potential overexposure of baseball games on cable television threatens the economic viability of the sport.
Describing cable television regulations and procedures as "an intolerable situation for professional sports," Kuhn told a congressional subcommittee that it is possible for cable stations to "saturate the major urban markets where our clubs are located with literally hundreds of distant sports telecasts."
Kuhn told the House subcommittee on courts, civil liberties and administration of justice that cable television companies are planning to televise as many as 400 games next year in Los Angeles and 600 in Boston.
Such a situation poses a grave economic threat, both in terms of gate attendance and network television revenues, to major league baseball, which already is treading on financial quicksand, Kuhn said. On a one-day break away from the baseball winter meetings in Florida, Kuhn said only nine of baseball's 26 teams had made money in 1980 and that the aggregate loss for major league baseball was $25 million.
He called for an end to the compulsory license clause that permits cable television operators to bring competing major league baseball games into major league cities without either the consent of the league or the teams involved.
"We create at great personal effort, expense and risk, a unique product -- a product which cable values quite highly and which it utilizes, without our consent and for a veritable pittance," Kuhn said.
His remarks brought sharp rebuttal from Ted Turner, who owns the Atlanta Braves baseball team, the Atlanta Hawks basketball team, Turner Broadcasting System, Cable News Network and the cable "superstation" WTBS in Atlanta.
"If baseball is in trouble, it is because they are paying the baseball players a million and a half dollars a year," Turner said. "There isn't one single example of a proven economic harm from cable television. They just want total control to the detriment of the American public."
Yesterday was the subcommittee's 18th day of hearings this year on the murky issue of cable copyright legislation. Although Chairman Robert W. Kastenmeier (D-Wisc.) said the subcommittee prefers that the interested parties agree on a solution, the gap between the two sides appeared wide.
"What the sports leagues want is an absolute, total monopoly where there is no competition," Turner said.
Retorted Kuhn: "We were prepared to negotiate with the cable people, but they had no interest in listening to us. Without professional sports, one has to wonder just how successful cable operations would be.
"We are the piece de resistance of their programming, and we feel that for us to be treated like a stepchild is grossly unfair."
David Stern, executive vice president of the National Basketball Association, said the NBA endorses Kuhn's views.