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Baseball and cable a union with history

Baseball and cable a union with history

Sixty years ago, John Walson, an appliance store owner in Mahanoy City, Pa., hiked up a nearby mountain, placed an antenna on top of a utility pole, connected the apparatus to the televisions in his store with a cable and signal boosters and invented the multi-billion-dollar worldwide obsession we now know as cable TV.

Walson's family cable business, which continues to operate, includes baseball on the menu, from the newly crowned World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies to the Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs, who are owned by his son, John Walson Jr.

In other words, the longtime marriage of baseball and cable TV is stronger than ever, and starting Jan. 1, 2009, the union is becoming even stronger.

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When the New Year rings in, with it the MLB Network will bring an all-Major League Baseball channel into 50 million homes, making it the largest network debut in cable history by more than 20 million homes.

And with a stable of talent that includes broadcasting stars Harold Reynolds, Al Leiter, Matt Vasgersian, Joe Magrane, Barry Larkin, Dan Plesac, Hazel Mae, Trenni Kusnierek and Victor Rojas, you'll be getting baseball 24 hours a day from the experts via live games, original programming, highlights, classic games and coverage of baseball events.

"Launching MLB Network into 50 million homes has allowed us to make significant investments in the studios and on-air personalities, so that when we debut on Jan. 1, we will be presenting a first-class product to baseball fans around the country," said MLB Network president and chief executive officer Tony Petitti.

"I am confident that MLB Network will be a valuable addition to the television viewing habits of baseball fans."

For Reynolds, the former Major League All-Star second baseman and veteran of ESPN -- who has most recently been a baseball commentator for MLB.com since 2007 and in '08 did studio work for SportsNet New York and TBS as a game analyst for its Sunday baseball telecasts as well as the MLB postseason -- it's the realization of a dream.

"It's incredible with the opportunity, the reach, to be a part of the network," Reynolds says. "You're a baseball fan first, and this is about serving the fan. There's no other vehicle in sports right now that's going to be able to do what we're doing in servicing the fan. I'm excited. It's time for a baseball 24-hour network, and if you're a baseball fan, you'll love it."

To put this groundbreaking event into its proper perspective, let's take a look at some of the other milestones in cable TV history -- many of which also happen to be baseball-related:

Twenty-four years after Walson climbed that Pennsylvania mountain in the literal and figurative senses, another summit was reached with the 1972 Cable Television Report and Order, which deregulated cable's expansion to new markets, paving the way for the first pay-cable network, HBO, to debut with the Paul Newman movie "Sometimes a Great Notion" and for much profitability and popularity to come.

Three years later, HBO became a national service and began to use its broad scope to bring huge events to the public, starting with the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier "Thrilla in Manila" bout, which was broadcast live via satellite on HBO, marking the first major live sports event in cable history.

Braves baseball became a regular cable tradition in December 1976, when Ted Turner's Atlanta-based WTCG (Turner Communications Group) network was first transmitted via satellite, effectively becoming cable's first "superstation," and Chicago's WGN-TV followed, bringing Cubs and White Sox games to the nation beginning in 1978.

The next four years seemed to fly by in the increasingly ubiquitous world of cable, but the years were dotted with one historic launch after another: the movie channel Showtime in 1978, and the first all-sports cable network, ESPN, plus Warner's launch of Nickelodoen and the Movie Channel, in '79. The following year saw the beginning of the first all-news network, CNN, and '81 brought us the first all-music channel, MTV.

Notable Moments in Cable Television
With the launch of the MLB Network set for Jan. 1, here's a look at the events that led up to the creation of the channel.
Year
Moment

1948 John Walson, an appliance store owner in Mahanoy City, Pa., puts an antenna on top of a nearby mountain and connects it to the televisions in his store with a cable and signal boosters, thereby inventing cable TV
1972 The 1972 Cable Television Report and Order relaxes certain restrictions on cable expansion
1972 Pay cable debuts when HBO airs "Sometimes a Great Notion," with Paul Newman and Henry Fonda
1975 Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier "Thrilla in Manila" bout is broadcast live via satellite on HBO, marking the first major live sports event in cable history
1976 Ted Turner's WTCG (Turner Communications Group), later known as TBS and home to the Atlanta Braves, is transmitted via satellite, becoming cable's first "superstation"
1978 Showtime movie service launches
1978 WGN-TV in Chicago, with Cubs and White Sox games, becomes available to cable and satellite subscribers all over America
1979 ESPN, first all-sports cable network, launches
1979 Warner launches the children's channel Nickelodeon and The Movie Channel
1980 CNN, first all-news cable network, launches
1981 MTV, first all-music cable network, launches
1984 Cable Communications Policy Act addrsses rate regulation and franchise renewals
1988 Cable TV is honored by the Emmys for the first time in history when HBO wins for the documentary "Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam" and ESPN wins the first sports Emmy
1990 ESPN adds Major League Baseball to its lineup
1991 CNN revolutionizes live cable coverage with 24-hour news from Iraq during the Persian Gulf War
1992 Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act re-regulates basic and expanded cable rates
1992 MTV launches "The Real World," a precursor to the reality show explosion
1995 ESPN televises the first cable tie-breaker playoff game as Seattle beats California
1996 Telecommunications Act of 1996 relaxes some of the 1992 Cable Act's rules
1996 ESPN begins a five-year contract with MLB that includes rights to a Wednesday doubleheader and the Sunday night Game of the Week, as well as all postseason games not aired on FOX or NBC
1996 Microsoft and NBC launch MSNBC, a 24-hour cable news channel and Web site
1998 For the first time, more TV households watch basic cable during a week of prime time than the Big Four networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX) combined
2002 The New York Yankees' YES Network launches
2007 ESPN2 broadcasts the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, marking the first time the Draft is televised
2007 HBO's landmark series "The Sopranos" ends, marking the conclusion of the most critically acclaimed cable program of all time
2007 TBS acquires the rights to air one half of the League Championship Series, making it the first time an LCS is broadcast exclusively on cable, with games not even available on regular television in teams' home cities.

Things changed again in 1984, when the Cable Communications Policy Act expanded satellite programming nationwide and tackled previously sticky issues of pricing and franchising.

Cable began to get serious recognition for its programming in 1988 when ESPN won the first sports Emmy Award and the HBO documentary "Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam" took home an Emmy.

And two years after that, MLB finally made its debut on cable, when ESPN reeled it in with its first cable contract. MLB is currently with ESPN for at least three more seasons.

The ability for cable to track live events with 24-hour coverage became most apparent in January 1991, when CNN made history with its broadcasting of the Persian Gulf War.

And on the creative side, MTV broke ground a year later with "The Real World," a show in which seven young strangers lived together and had their daily lives taped and aired. The show might have seemed gossipy and unimportant at the time, but it became the forefather to the reality show explosion that we see today.

With all this expansion and money pouring in, more regulations were sure to follow, and 1992 saw the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act, which re-regulated rates and dealt with programming compensation. This act was historic for that reason and for the fact that it was the only piece of legislation in President George H.W. Bush's administration that overrode a veto.

Meanwhile, the 1990s saw more baseball history on cable.

On Oct. 2, 1995, ESPN's top team of Jon Miller and Joe Morgan called cable's first divisional tie-breaking game, with the Seattle Mariners defeating the California Angels. And after the Telecommunications Act of '96 relaxed some of the regulations of the '92 ruling, ESPN began another five-year contract with MLB that included rights to a Wednesday doubleheader and the Sunday night Game of the Week, as well as all postseason games not aired on FOX or NBC.

This, of course, led to MLB postseason games being aired on cable for the first time.

While 1996 bore witness to another major cable news launch with the pairing of Microsoft and NBC into the 24-hour channel and Web site MSNBC, the week of June 22-28, 1998, made history when it was revealed that for the first time in TV history, more households tuned into basic cable during a week of prime time than to the Big Four networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX) combined.

Baseball history was made yet again in March 2002, when the New York Yankees flexed their muscles by launching their YES Network, and five years later, the First-Year Player Draft was televised for the first time, making its debut on the cable channel ESPN2.

That same year, the HBO series "The Sopranos," the most decorated and critically acclaimed original cable program ever, came to a dramatic close and TBS started a new era in baseball broadcasting by acquiring the rights to one half of the League Championship Series.

All of these milestones have led up to the one we're all waiting for on New Year's Day, and MLB is ready to break in 2009 with the biggest bang in cable history.

Somewhere, the father of cable TV, John Walson, has to be smiling. Petitti already is.

"We're not trying to be about any one game or any one team," Petitti says. "We're going to be telling the story of the entire league in one given night. The idea is to be able to give fans a taste of everything."

Doug Miller is a senior writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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