In Orwell's "1984," Big Brother is always watching you, and the video drones on in every building in Oceania, providing no relief. It was forever on and you couldn't turn it off. In Ueberroth's 1986, we're always watching Bill Buckner, and the games drone on in every living room in America, providing no relief. It is forever on, but the big difference is that the lords of baseball want us to turn some of it off.
The baseball boom on television is veering out of control. If you have a satellite dish these days, you can throw a five-month dinner party providing 3,700 consecutive hours of major league baseball as entertainment. The key is to be patient with finding the right satellite signals and to buy bulk foods.
The raw numbers tell the story. There are 2,100 major league games in a season. According to Bryan Burns, baseball's director of broadcasting, 1,800 will be televised this year and 1,500 of those will be available via satellite. By this time next year, the major leagues may force broadcasters to scramble their signals to prevent satellite pickup because Commissioner Peter Ueberroth and many baseball executives have said they must protect their lucrative network television package and that the saturation could contribute to declining major league and minor league attendance.
Even without a dish, residents in Fairfax, Montgomery and Prince George's counties can pick up more than 500 games from their cable systems on superstations WGN, WTBS and WOR, plus Home Team Sports. This, on top of the weekly schedule of games on NBC and ABC and the 40 Orioles games shown on WMAR-TV-2 and WDCA-TV-20.
There are five superstations: WTBS148 Braves games WGN147 Cubs games WOR87 Mets games WPIX97 Yankees games KTVT50 Rangers games
Each of the teams carried by superstations pays into a pool that is divided among all the franchises on the premise that the owners should be compensated by a possible lack of attendance caused by folks staying home to watch TV games. WPIX and KTVT are not available in most cable systems because they came into the game late; most cable operators limit themselves to two superstations because of limited channel capacity and because of stiff copyright fees for picking up distant signals.
In addition to the superstations, many viewers nationwide are getting an increasing number of home team games on cable. HTS does at least 85 Orioles games, plus up to 40 other American League games. According to Cablesports, an industry newsletter, 18 of 26 teams this season are on cable or pay-per-view.
What it all adds up to is a burgeoning boom. Yes, with proper scheduling, you can watch every Glenn Hubbard at-bat this season. But while you are watching several games a day, baseball officials are wondering if a lack of scrambling on the satellite signal is hurting business.
"Is it hurting us? Significantly, no," said Bob Aylward, the Orioles' director of business affairs. "But everyone is recognizing that now is the time to get the house in order. In the long run, it makes sense to protect our signal, and it's distinctly possible we'll go in that direction."
Burns said that scrambling "is on hold right now" as baseball tries to work out the complexities of implementing such a system. "It's hard to measure how much a lack of scrambling is hurting baseball," he said. "Can I tell you that it's costing us X amount of tickets and X amount of dollars? No, we don't have those figures. But I can tell you that yes, it has to be hurting baseball. When you have that dish, you can watch HTS wherever you are, and that's got to hurt."
While the cable and satellite options grow, some viewers might be concerned about a decline of games on free TV. The Orioles, for instance, have cut back their WMAR telecasts by 20 percent since HTS was created. But Aylward, like many Orioles officials in recent years have, emphasized that the club would not contemplate dropping free TV "any time in the foreseeable future."
"The marketing value of having your team over commercial TV is so great," Burns said, "that it doesn't make sense for teams to pull off of free TV."
Still, the trend toward pay-per-view (where the cable viewer pays only for games he wants to watch), especially on home games, continues. At least four National League teams have pay-per-view packages. (San Diego Cable Sports Network, for instance, offers a 41-game Padres package for $140 or single games for $5.95 each.)
In TV's early days, many teams televised most of their home schedules, then retreated from such heavy exposure because of concerns about hurting the gate. Now, we're coming full cycle -- but with a price to pay. We again might get the option to watch more and more home games if we have access to a pay-per-view system and if we're willing to pay the going rate.