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How MLB Network was built

How MLB Network was built

SECAUCUS, N.J. -- "Now we have to learn how to drive it," Tony Petitti said on a December tour of the MLB Network's renovated startup facility.

That is what it feels like with less than a week to go before the largest network launch in cable television history. It has been a dizzying blur of design and demolition, creativity and construction, recruiting and rehearsing.

Now, nearly two years after the initial talks about what it all might look and feel like, the moment of truth is almost here. The MLB Network will greet you with its Hot Stove Show at 6 p.m. ET on Jan. 1, starting with an introductory message from the people who are about to change your world (free) in a way no other 24-hour sports network can.

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To better understand what it feels like to be on the studio end of that message, take a closer look at what went into making the MLB Network:

March-May 2007: Preliminary production/broadcast facility concepts are discussed for the first time between Major League Baseball and past/present execs of San Diego-based CBT Systems, which in 2003 had done the same as consultant developer for the NFL Network's financial and facility concepts. Representing MLB was Tim Brosnan, executive vice president of business, and Chris Tully, senior vice president of broadcasting. Representing the other party was Ken Aagaard of CBS Sports and former CBT president, and Darrell Wenhardt, current CBT president.

On April 4, MLB announced a deal that allows its "Extra Innings" package of out-of-market games to stay on cable through In-Demand -- in addition to its recently announced $700 million, seven-year deal with DirecTV. The deal ensured that baseball's TV network ultimately will have the largest launch in cable history, and that it will be a basic tier channel that's easy for people to find.

"It provides both the financial stability and the exposure to ensure a successful launch of the channel and bring the game to as many fans as possible," MLB president Bob DuPuy said.

May-December 2007. Preliminary facility and technical plans and requirements are developed between May and June. Facility search and qualification process is from June-October. Facility conceptual design development for the new network took place from September through the end of the year.

January-May 2008. One year away from launch, the technical design was completed and a request for systems integration proposals are issued. Technical facility proposals were reviewed the first three months of the year, and from March-May a "temporary" Secaucus facility plan was developed.

In April, The Systems Group (TSG) out of Hoboken, N.J., was selected as the network's systems integration vendor. Gary Fippinger became employee No. 1, hired as facility director. He had been facility manager for MSNBC, the facility's previous tenant, and stayed on once Aagaard and Wenhardt had identified the old MSNBC studios as a good interim place.

June 2008: Petitti, who had been executive VP and executive producer at CBS Sports, officially started his previously announced new post June 2 as president and CEO of the MLB Network. That brought the staff total to two, and exactly one week later, Tony Santomauro started as senior VP of finance and administration, followed four days later by two more execs.

"It was pretty lonely out here the first month," Petitti recalled months later. "I was like Jack Nicholson in 'The Shining.' I said, 'If you see me bouncing baseballs off the wall here, come and get me, I'm going back to CBS.'"

Most pressing issues for Petitti: getting a staff, starting the creative look process (graphics, set), choosing systems engineering vendors (ie, for the audio board, switcher, etc.) Systems integration begins. "Studio 42 looks like an MSNBC ghost town, like all their personnel were outside for a fire drill," one later staffer recalls. Studio 3 is a shell.

July 2008: On the seventh of the month, the Monster All-Star Game Final Vote was under way, and the first telephones were installed at the MLB Network studios while Amanda Morgenstern started as comptroller. Three days later, as Final Vote ballots are being tallied, Internet connectivity is achieved. And on the same day that Josh Hamilton has a dream round of 28 longballs in the State Farm Home Run Derby, Petitti was still building his dream team with employees No. 10 and 11 in Susan Stone (VP of operations) and Art Marquez (VP of distribution, affiliate sales & marketing). That same day, the first length of TV cable was run, eventually leading to an unbelievable 300 miles of HD cable that is laid under the new flooring.

Mary Beck, who had been with Major League Baseball's corporate HQ on Park Avenue since 2001, most recently as VP of brand awareness and marketing, made the move to the Network as SVP of marketing and promotion.

August-September 2008: August begins with Manny Ramirez with the Dodgers and 13 employees with MLB Network. Demolition starts in Studio 42, to "de-MSNBC" it. Studio 3 still looks like a warehouse, with all the old outgoing equipment and new pallets of equipment.

"For the first two weeks that I worked here," Stone said, "I thought it was the loading dock."

Petitti remembers all of the dated equipment that had been left behind after MSNBC moved.

"Every single desk had a bubbletop computer on it and a TV," he said during a tour for media just before launch, stopping at a vast production area. "We tried to give them away to churches and charities -- everywhere.

Most pressing issues: Getting a set design company chosen, staffing up in general, and especially a great head of production. Petitti hired John Entz as SVP of production, landing someone who had been VP and executive producer at FOX Sports Net (producing the MLB All-Star Game Red Carpet Show presented by Chevy, working on FOX Sports' Super Bowl pregame coverage) and a Sports Emmy-winning associate producer at ESPN, where he worked on such productions as "Baseball Tonight."

On Sept. 1, MLB rosters were expanded, and the MLB Network formally unveiled its new logo. "This identity is consistent with the timeless Major League Baseball logos," Petitti said.

October 2008: On the Monday that the White Sox play a makeup game with Detroit in order to meet the Twins for a pass into the American League Division Series, the employee count had shot up to 43.

"It's amazing what's been accomplished," Petitti recalled later. "People are dropped in here. If you get two new employees at most places, they have to fit in. One week we hired 25, then 20 on top of that ... it has been that way since we started."

The floor was poured in Studio 3, and on Oct. 18 -- the same Saturday the Red Sox beat Tampa Bay in Game 6 of the AL Championship Series to force a final game -- the first set pieces were delivered there. Studio 42 was still finishing the demolition phase, a process delayed by the necessity of waiting for 42's design completion.

The Phillies won it all for the first time since 1980, and the next day, the first HD signal was transmitted (bars and tone) to Intellsat Galaxy 17 satellite. A day later, on Halloween, Phillies fans enjoyed their first sports championship parade since the Sixers gave them one in '83. Meanwhile, an MLB Network signal was first transmitted with its revamped on-site Earth Station to the network's leased satellite transponder, Galaxy 17.

November-December 2008: Baseball season is over, but there was frenzied activity in its new network's digs. On Nov. 18, bars and tone were transmitted full-time for testing with participating multiple systems operators (MSOs such as Charter, Cox, Comcast). On Nov. 28, the first tape is ingested into the storage area network (SAN). This is a key moment, the first step in building a true file-based workflow.

By Dec. 1, the staffing count at MLB Network was up to 131. The talent was all coming together, dazzling many industry insiders. Among the hires either to date or to follow are: studio host Matt Vasgergian and Victor Rojas; analysts Barry Larkin, Al Leiter, Joe Magrane, Dan Plesac and Harold Reynolds and on-air reporters Trenni Kusnierek and Hazel Mae. All bring solid baseball backgrounds to a network that will be visible to 50 million homes and at every hour. Can they be critical when necessary?

"This has come up," Petitti said. "It's really crucial that we have our own voice. We try to hire as many people with as much diversity as possible. You've got to be credible. Every owner I have spoken to, the Commissioner -- all have said the same thing. MLB.com has already set the benchmark with that, so you have an example."

It's time to finally re-open the building's cafeteria.

"Early on, there were only a handful of us here and someone would just go out for lunch," Petitti recalled.

The studios were 75 percent complete by Dec. 1, and a day later, the first edit was made on one of the 29 network edit rooms. Fundamental basics came together as sounds are chosen; the right music is important in catering to all demos.

"We try to have a balance to some shows," Petitti said, when asked how he decides what the network will "sound" like. "I like the music to be more aggressive than historical. For studio and game themes, I would prefer to have more energy. We need a ton of music to cover all of our programming.

"I'm not a music expert, but you tell them the type of shows, and they provide some examples and you say what you like. It's embarrassing to talk to composers, but it seems to work."

On Dec. 5, MLB Network announced its studio names, noting that Studio 3 is named in memory of Babe Ruth, and Studio 42 is a tribute to Jackie Robinson. Turf was installed in the latter a day later, and Petitti plays catch on it with Reynolds.

"Honestly, you come to work and your CEO is a former college baseball player who wants to play catch with you," Reynolds said . "We were just talking ideas while throwing it. That's what it's like here."

On Dec. 8, rumors were swirling around CC Sabathia at the Winter Meetings. That day, the first "ready for air" edited piece was completed at MLB Network. The next day, there was talk that Sabathia might sign with the Dodgers, and the first transfer was made to the network's Omneon on-air playout server. A day later, the New York Post reported that Sabathia is going to the Yankees, and an offseason trend begins. That same day was the first Master Control rehearsal at the Secaucus plant.

The days are ticking by fast now, just like the countdown ticker that sits right beside one woman's desk at the Network offices.

"What ticker?" she asked when asked about it. There is work to be done, fast work.

The anchor desk was installed Dec. 14 in Studio 3, the last piece to go in there. Five days later, it was the first full show taping, with Don Larsen and Yogi Berra taping segments for the New Year's Night opening show.

There are always pressing issues, and in this month they have included getting the myriad technical and operational systems commissioned and online (all at the same time), and figuring out how to populate all the monitors in Studio 3 with discreet video.

"Having all the systems come together is the key now," Petitti said. "Pieces of this building have been tested every day, now it's putting everything together."

Somehow, it is all coming together. It has to be big, because it is for the big leagues. It has to be bright, because it is up all night.

Will it be perfect on New Year's Night? This much is known: Don Larsen will be on the mound again for the New York Yankees against the Brooklyn Dodgers in Game 6 of the 1956 World Series, the first time any mass audience has seen that in 52 years.

What more could you ask for?

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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