End of an era for TBS, Braves, fans
For three decades, Braves games have been beamed around the country on TBS. They became America's Team — but Sunday, America will watch for the last time.
By TIM TUCKER
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 09/30/07
All across America Sunday, thousands of people like Bill DeArmond of Winfield, Kan., will say goodbye to an old friend.
For three decades, they have watched the national telecasts of Braves games on TBS, turning Atlanta's baseball team into — at least for a while — "America's Team."
Today, America will watch for the last time.
The Braves' season finale at Houston marks the end of an era that began in 1977, when Ted Turner had the novel notion of bouncing his bad baseball team's games off a satellite to cable systems nationwide. Although Braves games will continue to be televised in Atlanta and much of the Southeast, the team no longer will be national programming on TBS — a casualty of the evolution of the TV industry.
"A very important part of my life won't be there anymore," said DeArmond, a college professor who credits the distant team with helping him through personal tragedies.
As the number of channels — and baseball teams — available on television has exploded, the national audience for Braves games has eroded. From a peak rating of 4.9 in 1983, the national Nielsen cable rating for Braves games is down 84 percent, to 0.8 this season — an average audience of 716,000 households. (The rating is the percentage of U.S. cable TV households tuned in on average.)
So like countless other TV shows of declining popularity, the Braves are being ... canceled.
"It's going to be hard, going to be a very emotional day," said longtime Braves broadcaster Skip Caray, who will call today's game with his broadcaster son, Chip Caray. "These [viewers], we've been a big part of their family. The connection is going to be severed, and it's going to be hard to say goodbye to them."
Meet three of them, from coast to coast:
• In Cape Cod, Mass., Warren Gortze, 62, schedules his time around TBS' Braves telecasts. A lifelong fan whose father took him to games when the Braves were based in Boston, he still thinks "the wrong team left town." He is trying to get his grandchildren to disavow the Red Sox for the Braves, and that'll be harder, he frets, without the games on TBS.
• In Kansas, DeArmond, 60, has been watching the Braves since his town got cable TV in 1978. He credits the Braves telecasts with helping him get through the horrible summer of 1997, when his mother and his wife died a week apart. "It was just unbelievable, losing the two most important people in your life in seven days, and you have to reach out and cling to something," he said. He'll watch today's game with both sadness and disgust. "TBS has no loyalty to their fans," he said.
• And in northern California, Scott Roberts, 36, has been watching the Braves on TBS since age 8. He began watching for the same reason as many: "It was the only game on TV." Now, he has an 8-year-old son, Dylan, who watches with him. "Dylan's a big [Jeff] Francoeur and [Brian] McCann fan," Roberts said, "just like I was a big Dale Murphy, Glenn Hubbard fan." As he and his son watch today's finale, "I'll feel like I'm losing a major part of my own childhood."
'Quite a ride'
It began, like so many great ideas, on a napkin.
The Braves were flying back to Atlanta during the 1976 season when Turner, the team's rookie owner and cable TV pioneer, began diagramming.
"Ted was trying to show us how it could work — how the signal could be sent from Atlanta to a satellite and then be beamed to cable systems all over the country," longtime Braves broadcaster Pete Van Wieren recalled. "We went, 'That's interesting,' but it was such a remote concept."
At the time, there was no ESPN, no Fox, no regional sports networks, no weeknight baseball on TV in most of the country, even in markets near major league teams. No local station had dared to go national, let alone one as obscure as Turner's WTCG (later renamed TBS).
"It was like being on the first wagon train west," Caray said. "We didn't know where we were going, but we were having a lot of fun getting there."
Soon, the Braves' broadcasters — Van Wieren, Caray and Ernie Johnson Sr. — realized America's Team had arrived.
"Ernie, Skip and I were having dinner in San Francisco, and somebody sent a drink over," Van Wieren said. "We looked over and the person waved, but we had no idea who he was. He walked over and said he was a San Francisco resident who had started watching our games on cable and enjoyed them. We thought, 'Wow, people really are watching these games!' "
"On the road," Caray said, "it got embarrassing in some ballparks because there would be more Braves fans than home team fans."
The city manager of Hilo, Hawaii, in Atlanta for a convention, presented flowers, macadamia nuts and a plaque to the Braves' broadcasters. A little town in Iowa erected a billboard proclaiming allegiance to the Atlanta team. And by the 1990s, when the Braves turned from perennial losers to perennial division champs, a nationwide Harris Poll named them America's most popular baseball team for seven consecutive years.
"It was quite a ride," Van Wieren said.
Along the way, baseball and television were radically transformed.
Baseball commissioner Bud Selig recalled recently that in the late 1970s, owners would rant against the Braves' telecasts invading their markets.
"There were many who felt it would be the death knell of our sport," Selig said. As it turned out, he said, the telecasts "played a great role in maturing the relationship between MLB and television."
In the 1990s, as part of a negotiation with TBS, baseball did require a reduction in the maximum number of national Braves telecasts to 90.
The Braves played a key role in sustaining the cable industry through its infancy.
"Without that [programming], a lot of cable systems would have died," said Terry McGuirk, at the time Turner's right-hand man and now the Braves' president. "I remember going over to Charleston one time, and the cable-system guy had, like, 15 VCRs playing tapes of really bad-quality stuff. Then all of a sudden, we arrive on the satellite with the Braves."
Said David Levy, president of Turner Sports: "The Braves will always have an important place in cable television history, no question."
Alas, history kept happening. Baseball games became ubiquitous — on ESPN and ESPN2 and Fox and dozens of regional sports networks, then on the Internet and DirecTV. Once the only game in much of America, the Braves became just another team on television.
"If you started [televising one team nationally] today, with all the games available, it wouldn't work," Van Wieren said. "For the 30 years it was going on, especially the first 20, it was really special. But everybody moves on."
Atlanta native Tom Abernathy has lived all over the country since graduating from high school here — Ohio, Philadelphia, the Pacific Northwest and, for the past 13 years, southern California. Everywhere he has gone, TBS has brought the Braves along.
"When I left Atlanta, I realized how important the Braves were in maintaining my lifeline, my connection, to the place I was from," said Abernathy, 39. "Whenever I'd call my grandparents or my mom back home, that's something we'd immediately talk about."
With TBS having gradually reduced its Braves telecasts, Abernathy has found other ways to watch the team. He subscribes to an MLB.com package that gives him access to telecasts of all major league games via the Internet. And he subscribes to MLB's "Extra Innings" package on DirecTV that offers up to 60 out-of-market games each week.
Next season, those packages will replace TBS as his lifeline to the Braves. It won't be the same, though. Sometimes he'll get the Braves' local broadcast and sometimes the opposing team's. "I hate watching other teams' broadcasts," he said.
TBS is not getting out of the baseball business. Starting this week, it will televise postseason games for the first time — the four first-round playoff series, followed by the National League Championship Series.
Next year, TBS also will carry a league-wide package of 26 Sunday afternoon games.
In essence, TBS traded the Braves for the league-wide and post-season packages.
"This is just the next part of the evolution," Turner Sports' Levy said. "Even though Braves baseball has spanned across the country, it was heavily skewed in [the Southeast], and we as a company are a national cable network and needed to have properties that matched the portfolio and the brand."
None of which will comfort fans such as DeArmond in Winfield, Kan.
He recently wrote a letter to Caray, describing how much the Braves' national broadcasts have meant to him and criticizing TBS' decision to end them.
"Sadly, America's team has been consumed by American greed," he wrote.
"And so the love affair is over. ... Goodbye my friends. ... And we'll always have that magical year when we went from worst to first."