360AM — Morning news briefing for Friday, May 18 >>

Major League Baseball yesterday announced a Jan. 1, 2009, launch date for the MLB Network, which will launch in 47 million homes—the biggest launch in cable TV history. A first-year slate of 26 games will be shown nationwide on Saturday nights with no blackouts, said EVP Tim Brosnan, who added (in something of an understatement), "We used the [Extra Innings] out-of-market package to leverage distribution." MLB is guaranteed $80 million in annual revenue, which could rise to $100 million a year as the subscriber base expands. Baseball’s 30 owners unanimously approved the channel’s creation. [AP | Washington Post]

TVG, owned by Gemstar-TV Guide, sued HRTV, its owner Magna Entertainment and XpressBet Inc. for allegedly infringing two patents for interactive wagering systems. TVG just launched to Comcast‘s digital customers in New Jersey.

Proving that Web advertising is hotter than hot, Microsoft is paying $6 billion for digital marketing agency aQuantive and its subsidiaries including Atlas, which enables and tracks online and interactive ad sales.

Time Warner pres/COO Jeff Bewkes may be asked today at the company’s shareholder meeting in Burbank to explain a pay-off he reportedly authorized 16 years ago to Sasha Emerson, a former HBO employee who accused her then-boss and ex-lover, the just ousted Chris Albrecht, of choking her. [Los Angeles Times]

Ars Technica recaps yesterday’s "jovial" House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet meeting in which a working definition of broadband (2 Mbps) was promoted and the FCC asked to stop saying a whole zip code has broadband access if only one resident can make that claim.

Rep. Hilda Solis (D-CA) was criticized in the San Francisco Chronicle for opposing a la carte — but not disclosing that her biggest financial contributor is Comcast, which donated $12,500 to her 2006 re-election campaign, while the National Cable & Telecommunications Association donated $10,000. She was further critiqued for promoting a website—funded by the NCTA—for the Alliance for Diversity in Programming, which is co-chaired by Johnathan Rodgers of TV One (which is part-owned by Comcast) and Michael Schwimmer of Si TV (part-owned by Time Warner Cable). Solis responded (oddly, in the third person) that business interests don’t sway her policy positions: "Hilda Solis is not that kind of person" and "I don’t agree with the (cable) industry on everything."

Fransuah Matthews of Gary, IN, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the death of cable technician Verndell Warmack in 2004 after learning his TV wasn’t cable ready post-installation. [NWITimes]



• UPFRONTS

Yesterday’s final broadcast TV upfronts—the CW and Fox—highlighted ad-skipping busters for advertisers, from in-show product integration and five-second content wraps (dubbed "Cwickies") at the CW to eight-second shorts at Fox, whose ad sales head Jon Nesvig says animated interstitial character "Oleg the taxi driver" won’t be back following last month’s test, but is "looking at all our options" to engage viewers through commercial breaks. [New York Times]

Fox was true to Rupert Murdoch’s promise that News Corp. is going eco-friendly by holding the first carbon-neutral upfront, notes the Hollywood Reporter. How green was their upfront? Bright, from biodiesel generators to soy-based inks and recycled paper, hybrid vehicles and forcing vendors to shared trucks and walking distance between upfront and after-party.

Big themes during this week’s upfronts, per Variety: fewer procedurals; more sci fi or fantasy-based series; flexible scheduling (including more episodes, fewer repeats) to accommodate time-shifting and DVRs; passing of the old guard (more greenlights to likes of Mark Gordon, Greg Berlanti, Shonda Rhimes and other rising producers instead of Steven Bochco, Dick Wolf, David E. Kelley etc.); and the sitcom is still dead.

NYT critic Virginia Heffernan blogged this week’s upfronts and concluded during the CW‘s presentation that all the focus on digital opportunities is well-intended, but misreads how kids use media these days: "The major, major, insurmountable problem is this: the CW execs start in their own heads when they’re deciding what to dump into all these little digital cupcake tins. They truly seem to believe that their sons and daughters "comb the Internet searching for the latest trends." No. Committed users of MySpace, Facebook and YouTube do not comb the Internet looking for trends. That’s what marketing people do. That’s what nervous adults do. That’s what programmers worrying about how to ‘reach’ kids do."



• COMPETITION

Verizon is in the "final stages" of negotiating FiOS TV agreement for New York City, but it could take years to launch, reports the New York Sun.

Qwest launched a qwestionable ad campaign yesterday hyping its broadband over Comcast‘s service in Denver. Its claim: 72% of 100 people surveyed found Qwest’s premium service as fast or faster than Comcast’s. But when queried by Denver’s Rocky Mountain News, Qwest acknowledged a margin error of plus or minus 9.8% and said its survey involved five tests, such as downloading music and video, muddying results.



• ONLINE

YouTube founders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen met Pentagon officials yesterday to challenge being booted from the military’s 5 million worldwide computers on Monday along with MySpace and 11 other sites. Reporters, suspicious of censorship and spin control as a motive, grilled officials at a press conference about the Pentagon’s bandwidth concerns about data-heavy material such as video. The YouTubers noted their (well, Google‘s) site already takes down videos with "graphic violence," such as attacks on U.S. soldiers or Iraqi civilians, from its site. "We want to protect the (YouTube) community from being exposed to something violent, but at the same time, we want to educate people on what’s happening around the world," Hurley said. "It’s hard for us." [AP | Reuters]

Hurley and Chen later told AP that YouTube’s video ad network willl debut in the next 2 months and they’re not threatened by NBCU and News Corp.‘s planned video portal. "What our users want to watch is themselves," Hurley said. "They don’t want to watch professionally produced content … We have never been about full-length programming. We have never been about high-quality. We don’t really see ourselves building the largest audience by moving in that direction."

The Wall Street Journal looks at firms that build/track blog buzz for marketers including Young & Rubicam‘s VML agency, Seattle-based Visible Technologies (used by Sprint Nextel to hype video phones to bloggers) and Nielsen‘s BuzzMetrics.



• PROGRAMMING

Bravo will premiere David Beckham and Victoria "Posh Spice" Beckham’s coming-to-America reality series, originally slated for NBC, says MTV UK.

Cartoon Network taps Anna Kournikova for "Get Animated" public affairs campaign.

ESPN2 HD joins Comcast‘s sports tier in Houston, which will remain at $4/mo when the former Time Warner Cable system is formally rebranded next month. The market’s HD sports lineup will include a shared Versus/Golf HD channel plus standard def feeds of NFL Network and Gol TV in Spanish and English. [Houston Chronicle]

Fox News Channel drew 38% more viewers (2.4 million) for its GOP presidential debate on Tuesday than MSNBC attracted for its GOP debate on May 3. MSNBC’s Dem candidates’ debate on Apr. 26 averaged 2.26 million viewers. [LA Times]

Hallmark Channel‘s Married in America 2, Michael Apted’s documentary that premieres May 23, is sponsoring the Divorcing Daze podcast.

HBO‘s June 10 finale of The Sopranos will leave few characters standing, hints Steven "Silvio" Van Zandt to the New York Post. Last Sunday’s installment was the #1 telecast on cable, May 7-13. [AP]

HGTV is merging its marketing and creative services units into one "marketing, creative and brand strategy" dept. Marketing SVP Mike Boyd will oversee all off-air and online marketing, new business marketing, partnerships and P.R. while Jennifer Leitman is now VP brand promotion, Chris Moore is creative director and Paige Hardwick is director of strategy and planning.

HSN eliminated 60 positions yesterday, or about 1.5% of the network’s 4,000 employees as it moves to focus on its core businesses: TV shopping, e-commerce and digital distribution such as "point and click ordering on video on demand" and podcasts. [St. Petersburg Times] The layoffs came as Discovery announced 1,000 job cuts that will slash 25% of its workforce by closing its bricks-and-mortar branded stores.

Lifetime tapped Brit comedian Graham Norton to host its working titled Popularity Reality gameshow, a popularity contest in which seven women are eliminated before a studio audience; the pilot shoots in June. A new season of The Graham Norton Show premieres on BBC America on June 2. [Hollywood Reporter]

Speed and Wealth TV co-broadcast the Ferrari Challenge series from May 18-20 and then in August, with Wealth TV handling HD-casts.

Sundance Channel acquired a slate of first-run features and docs "that previously wouldn’t have been available to us," EVP/GM Laura Michalchyshyn tells Variety. "We’re the benefactor of the changing landscape" for indie film, with fewer bidders and lower prices creating an opportunity. New acquisitions include Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon the Brain, which is still playing (with live music and actors accompanying) in New York.

Shirley Brady

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