Tribe TV network launched in Ohio

Cleveland Indian fans yesterday got their first taste of the SportsTime Ohio, the new network dedicated to the Cleveland Indians and all Northern Ohio sports. The network’s first telecast was a sold-out spring training game in Winter Haven, FL. Between the Indians and the New York Yankees.

“It went okay,” says Jim Liberatore, president of Fastball Productions, the company behind SportsTime Ohio. “It was your typical first broadcast but we managed to get the signal from point A to point B and get it out to viewers.”

The game had a couple of transmission hiccups that were fixed during the telecast. Liberatore also expects some changes in the font graphics and the placement of the score tracker line. “We’ll be experimenting with different things like having the name of the player at bat ghosted in the corner during the entire at bat,” he says.

The spring training game is the first of 158 games that Indian fans will see this year (and home games will be in HD). SportsTime Ohio will carry 138 of the games while WKYC-TV Cleveland and other local over-the-air broadcasters in Ohio will carry another 20.
SportsTime Ohio is the latest network to be launched that, like the YES Network, is owned by the team. Liberatore says the network has about 1 million subs through deals with Time Warner Cable and other smaller cable operators. He is also in negotiations with DirecTV and Echostar. Only Insight Cable has given him a definitive no.

“Getting those deals done in time for the regular season isn’t a huge concern because the rate we’re asking for is very fair,” says Liberatore. “We’re just getting our programming in line.”

The networks programming will be fairly limited during the first season. It will only be on air from 7 p.m. to midnight, a move that Liberatore says will let the network focus strictly on Ohio sports (game coverage will include pre- and post-game reports and replays of the games). “We don’t want to be showing a Stanford/UCLA volleyball game to fill time,” he says. “We want everything to be from northern Ohio.”

As for the game productions, a dedicated HD suite at WKYC will serve as the home base with camera feeds being sent directly from the stadium via fiber to ensure the highest-quality HD picture. Pre- and post-game reports will also be handled out of WKYC.

“We went to WKYC with a list of our production needs and they put a bid on the job and won it,” says Liberatore. “It’s a great relationship: they have a great deal of engineering expertise and WKYC is the number one news channel in the market so it’s a great promotional promo platform.”

Liberatore, who has spent time working for other regional sports networks like MSG in New York, says he enjoys the advantage of working for a network owned by the team. “The difference is this is our own family and it’s like making a presentation of your kids,” he says. “We want to look as great as we can while regional networks tend to look at the budget and judge everything by whether or not they can recoup the cost.”

What does it take to know whether a franchise can carry off its own network? Liberatore says two things need to be in place. First, it has to be a team the city cares about, even when it’s playing badly. “You need to cut into the psyche of the community,” he says, something the Indians, in good times and bad, has always done.

But a team also needs a major MSO partner. “The Indians went to Time Warner and were able to structure a deal with them,” he says. “And Time Warner is such a huge player in the market that it set a template for other deals.”

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