To understand the impact Home Team Sports potentially will have on your sports-viewing habits, you need to remember that it doesn't change the two saddest aspects of Washington life: there's still no baseball here and the bars aren't open all night.
Despite these fundamental injustices, consider recent developments in the quality of Washington living: a decade ago, we got Metrorail, which gave old neighborhoods new identities and made D.C. more accessible than ever; and this year, we got Home Team Sports, which gives old sports franchises new fans and makes them more accessible than ever.
Home Team Sports, a regional cable network, gives us 80 Orioles games, 45 Bullets games and 45 Capitals games per season -- all live, most of them at home. HTS also gives us Baltimore Blast indoor soccer, boxing, college football, basketball and lacrosse and local thoroughbred racing, among other things.
Like Metrorail, HTS still is limited in its functions. HTS usually gives us just one live event a day and operates for just a few prime-time hours. And the service is not available to many folks in the area.
But HTS is rapidly penetrating more of its potential market. As of Dec. 1, twenty-two systems with about 48,000 subscribers carried HTS over a six-state region. One of HTS' major stumbling blocks has been that two of its biggest markets, the cities of Washington and Baltimore, are not wired for cable yet. That has proven an enormous business handicap, as if 7-Eleven were not allowed to sell milk, bread or eggs.
The situation is improving. Most of Northern Virginia is wired or getting wired for cable and Montgomery County is making slow progress. Even in the District, where cable is just a rumor, many residents now can pick up HTS through Capitol Connection, George Mason University's omnidirectional microwave system.
In the past year, six regional pay sports service were started around the country. Most services have been on shaky ground, but HTS, relatively speaking, is thriving.
"The jury's still out on all of us," HTS General Manager Bill Aber said. "I can't sit here today and tell you we're an absolute, no-questions-about-it success. This is a very expensive concept. We are on firmer footing than some of the others.
"We'll lose a considerable amount of money this year, in 1985 and probably in 1986. I am confident this thing becomes a stable business in 1987. Westinghouse (the parent company) is shoveling a lot of money into this. They're committed."
Two decisions probably have greatly enchanced HTS' success. On the business end, Aber realized the need to tailor his service in a different way to each cable operator.
"I have 250 operators (who can pick up HTS). Period. It's a finite universe," Aber said. "If Fairfax County decided not to use our service, I couldn't replace them with Fairfax County, Montana. Fairfax, Arlington, they're vital to my business. They may be just nice for a national service like HBO; they're essential to me."
Aber's greatest frustration has been the "technical or political or financial" circumstances that continually delay cable operators in adding HTS to their system.
On the programming end, HTS' opening strategy was to augment -- not replace -- free TV's current fare and to bring subscribers the type of regional-interest events not seen before.
"Take the kind of schedule we put together for college lacrosse," said Jody Shapiro, HTS programming director and executive producer. "If you lived in Baltimore, you never saw North Carolina play. If you lived in Carolina, you never saw Johns Hopkins play. There's real interest there.
"I don't pretend that a college soccer game we put on satisfies 50,000 people across the board. I just have to make sure they know why it's on and know we can satisfy them on another night."
HTS research shows that people willing to pay for a channel definitely watch that channel. That point might seem self-evident, but what it apparently means is that folks with a strong interest in the Orioles or Bullets, for instance, will watch those clubs before they watch other sporting events on free TV.
HTS officials like to point to an HTS telephone survey taken in June when an Orioles-Tigers game was shown at the same time that a Lakers-Celtics NBA championship series game and the Major Indoor Soccer League title game also were televised. More than three-quarters of the 1,650 HTS subscribers reached were watching the Orioles.
HTS' strength is its production of live events. It does not pursue breaking stories aggressively and its studio shows are uneven. But the production quality of its live events is excellent, particularly in baseball, where HTS brought us a ground-level camera angle from the backstop area that provided fresh perspective on replays.
But its announcers' words usually don't match the pictures for consistency.
The network starts with a fairly solid crew of play-by-play men -- Mike Fornes on the Capitals, Jon Miller on the Bullets, Mel Proctor on the Orioles -- but quality takes a beating with much of the other on-air talent. Analysts Rex Barney and Phil Chenier are forgettable, and if you had to listen to Jim Brinson or Johnny Holliday for the rest of your natural life, you'd be a hardened fatalist.
(Yes, that's the same Johnny Holliday you've seen and heard for years on WMAL morning sports, the Redskins pregame show, Maryland football and basketball and Datsun and Scott Home & Garden Center commercials, as well as starring at the Harlequin dinner theater.)
Regardless, with the sound on or off, Home Team Sports is a welcome addition, especially on those hot summer nights when RFK Stadium is empty and Memorial Stadium is just too far away. You can even watch HTS in several area bars and toast another Orioles victory afterward. Remember, however, the bar will toss you out at 2 a.m. and the subway will be closed. You're still in Washington.
Jim Spence, executive vice president of ABC Sports, said last week that the network will consider moving "Monday Night Football" to 8 p.m. (ET) next season. "There's a chance, but the odds are against it," he said. "Our research people indicate they believe the overall ratings would be lower (at the earlier time)."