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Classic Sports Network a Surprise Hit for Dow Jones/ITT Station

September 12, 1996

NEW YORK (AP) _ The difference between a TV station with a smooth mix of compelling programs and one that fails to capture the imagination is as simple as a quick touch of the remote. Click. You’re gone.

With that kind of pressure, assembling a programming lineup is no simple task. It’s part art, part science. ...

And part luck.

Witness, WBIS+. The station, which operates in the New York City area, recently came under new ownership. With its own programming still in development, WBIS+ decided to fill its air time with Classic Sports Network, which repackages notable sporting events like the fights of Muhammad Ali and World Series past. It’s become an unexpected hit.

``We had hoped that it would provide an appealing segue to our official launch, but the popularity has been a pleasant surprise to Classic Sports and to us,″ says Carolyn Wall, president of WBIS+.

How popular is it? Wall says the station has received about 200 to 300 pieces of fan mail since it began showing Classic Sports on July 1, and network chief Brian Bedol says he’s begun to receive signed petitions to keep Classic Sports in New York when WBIS+’s own programming kicks off.

In fact, the network and station are now in talks to keep Classic Sports Network a part of WBIS+’s regular schedule in some incarnation.

WBIS+’s launch has been an interesting affair. A joint venture of Dow Jones & Co., publisher of The Wall Street Journal, and hotel, gaming and sports-team operator ITT Corp., the independent station is slated to carry original business and sports programming. Eventually, its owners plan to make it a nationwide superstation like Atlanta’s WTBS.

Classic Sports’ initial role was to keep something on the air while the new owners put their team together. It fast turned into more. New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a sports fan, was quoted as saying Classic Sports is ``the best thing that happened this summer.″

It’s not unusual to hear area residents say they’ve stumbled upon Classic Sports while flipping channels and kept on watching. Emerging ratings suggest people are starting to tune in en masse.

``When you’re a sports fan and you see these players and these games, it automatically takes you back to another time,″ says Bedol, chief executive of the network. ``Someone recently called it an electronic fountain of youth for sports fans.″

Classic Sports Network itself is a youthful venture. The network took to the air last May with just 18 staffers, appearing on an Ada, Okla., cable system and then expanding to other cable and satellite systems around the country. It puts together its programs primarily using the archives of the major sports leagues, with which Classic Sports has alliances.

``When Cal Ripken was out there breaking Lou Gehrig’s record, we did a lot of programming to put that in context,″ Bedol says. It put Lou Gehrig games and related shows on the air. Just last week, Mike Tyson’s fight was set up on Classic Sports with replays of some of his earlier bouts.

Classic Sports has grown quickly. It today employs 80 and with the addition of WBIS+, and its cable and over-the-air viewers, reaches 15 million homes either full- or part-time. It is expected to break even toward the end of next year.

Steven Barlow, a media analyst at the brokerage firm Smith Barney, says the success creates a bit of a conundrum for WBIS+: How much Classic Sports programming should it retain? ``Now they’ve got to look at prepackaged sports in addition to the Knicks and Rangers game,″ he says. ``And that could be powerful.″

WBIS+, formerly New York City-owned WNYC-TV, was designed to draw on the resources of Dow Jones and ITT. Dow Jones is to provide background and talent for business shows. ITT, which is half owner of Madison Square Garden, the MSG Network, the New York Knicks and the New York Rangers, offers expertise in sports.

The success of Classic Sports, though, suggests to Barlow that WBIS+ will need to rethink its plans and add the network’s offerings to its mix. ``It’s hard to get hits,″ he says. ``The taste of the public is always fickle.″

Exactly what’s so compelling about Classic Sports Network is, as with all things sports-related, open to debate. Is it the chance to relive great moments? The opportunity to see contests and athletes that you’ve only read about. Is it providing context for ongoing events? Or simply a respite from the daily drone of current affairs?

Whatever the appeal, Bedol and partner Steve Greenberg, son of Detroit Tigers great Hank Greenberg and former deputy commissioner of Major League Baseball, intend to field a winner. Within the next 3 to 4 years, they hope to be fully distributed to 40 million to 45 million homes.

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