FOX'S FIELD OF SCHEMES BOASTS NAT'L SPORTS CABLE

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The Fox Sports juggernaut continued to pick up speed last week with the announcement of a new five-year Major League Baseball contract that makes Fox the dominant media player in the American pastime.

Meanwhile, details of Fox's recent programming alliance with Tele-Communications Inc.'s Liberty Sports began to make it clear that Rupert Murdoch's designs for Fox Sports are much broader than that of a U.S. broadcast network.

Initial reports had it that Fox would merge Liberty's regional sports networks with its fledgling fX basic cable channel into a 24-hour cable network that would rival ESPN.

But the reality is contrary to, and much more ambitious than, that: The plan is to continue to operate the regional networks as local programming services but to brand them nationally as Fox Sports Cable channels.

fX will continue to be a general entertainment channel but one that would be greatly infused with high-profile TV sports events, much the way that Turner Broadcasting System's TNT and TBS networks, or USA Network, use high-profile sports to attract big ratings.

Some of the fX programming will come from local games on the regional networks, which would be blacked out in any markets where local rights restrictions apply.

Under the agreement, Liberty's regional networks, which include 14 of the top 27 nationwide, will come under Fox Sports management.

The channels-which are currently branded either under the Prime Sports banner or under various local monikers like Sunshine Network in southern Florida or Prime Ticket in southern California-will all be rebranded Fox Sports Cable.

In total, the Liberty channels hold local TV rights to 14 of the 30 MLB teams, 15 of the 29 National Basketball Association teams and 11 of the 26 National Hockey League teams.

Collectively the Liberty channels claim to produce more sports programming each year than ABC, CBS, NBC and ESPN combined.

As part of Time Warner's deal to acquire TCI's stake in Turner Broadcasting System, TCI also has the right to buy Turner's stake in powerful Southern regional network SportsSouth.

Under the Fox Sports Cable alliance, games airing on one regional channel won't appear on a regional channel in another market but can appear nationally on fX.

In addition, Liberty owns the all-sports Prime Sports Radio network, which Fox Sports will also manage.

How Fox and TCI will collaborate internationally is still unclear, but the partners see the overseas aspects of the deal as being at least as important as the U.S. component.

Fox Sports' pre-game shows and coverage of National Football League games already appear on Mr. Murdoch's Star TV in Asia and on Canal Fox in Latin America.

The alliance will likely find a home for the World League of American Football, a European league in which Fox has an equity stake.

The likely U.S. outlet, Fox insiders say, is fX, though World League games could appear on the regional Fox Sports Cable channels as well.

As for baseball, Fox comes out of the new MLB deal as the dominant player, with regular and post-season games including three World Series, two All-Star Games and coverage on Fox Sports Cable.

Fox is believed to have contributed about $575 million and the Fox Sports Cable alliance $162 million toward MLB's nearly $1.6 billion five-year TV contract. NBC, which gets post-season coverage including two World Series and three All-Star Games, paid about $400 million. ESPN, which gets regular season and some post-season coverage, paid $435 million.

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