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Tony Petitti Gives MLB Network a Quality Start

A little more than a year ago, Tony Petitti walked into an abandoned television studio in Secaucus, N.J., where it looked as though a bomb had gone off. He was about to begin the next chapter in his career, having just left a comfortable gig as the No. 2 executive at CBS Sports (CBS). His new job: help Major League Baseball launch its own cable channel, the MLB Network. Without staff, without a working studio, and without advertisers, Petitti began the daunting task of trying to get a network up and running in six months, in time for a planned Jan. 1 launch.

As it turns out, Petitti made his deadline, going live at 6 p.m. on New Year's Day. And Major League Baseball's $65 million investment has generally received good reviews from the fans. BusinessWeek senior writer Tom Lowry had the chance to visit with Petitti in the summer of 2008 shortly after he started. Lowry returned recently to tour an altogether different facility, a gleaming state-of-the-art digital studio, and to check in with Petitti. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation.

One advantage you had over other cable channels launching is that you already had distribution agreements that put MLB Network in 50 million households from the start. Have you been able to add new subscribers since?

We are in about 53 million homes right now. We've added some smaller systems that have come on board. We are on the digital tier and as that tier grows we get some natural growth, too. The one big network that is missing is Dish. That's really the last piece.

How are talks going with Dish Network (DISH)? Can we expect a deal soon?

All I can say is that the talks are ongoing.

What are the particular challenges in launching a network in this economy?

Everyone at Major League Baseball knew they wanted to build something for the long haul. So there was no talk of scaling back because of the economy. That's why this place looks the way it does today.

On the advertising side, we went in knowing what we were facing, so we set modest goals for the first year. That said, we are going to end up doing better than we thought. The fact that we have so many live hours has helped us (with advertisers). We can say to them we can embed you in the studio, we can embed you in the games. Having so much live programming has helped us tremendously. The great thing is that we are doing business with nearly all of Major League Baseball's corporate partners.

Have you been happy with the ratings?

We don't really see them because we don't have our deal with Nielsen yet, but we see some experimental data. I expect late third quarter, early fourth quarter we will have a deal with Nielsen and then we can look back and tell our advertisers how we thought we were doing.

What is the best piece of constructive criticism you've received in the past year?

Jeff Wilpon, the chief operating officer of the New York Mets, told me I should repeat Quick Pitch, our daily highlight show of record, more throughout the mornings.

You have said you see yourself as almost an entrepreneur. From the management perspective, what have been your biggest lessons this past year?

We had a lot of things going on at once, so you have to juggle all those. We didn't have a rehearsal until Dec. 27. We went on the air Jan. 1. There was just a lot of things that got turned on at once. I kind of see us having two launches, one in January and then when the season started in April. What's been amazing is to see all the people come together. We have 175 full-time employees and probably another 175 freelancers, technology people.

What are your old friends at CBS telling you?

They like it. Some of them have come out here to see the operation and they get jealous because it's so new. Very few places in the business have been built like this. I think we know how to use most of it by now. [laughs] What I took from (CBS Sports President Sean McManus) is the sensibility that the games and the coverage come first, as opposed to…making it about yourself. If you watch us, you see a great respect for what we are covering. We're there to help fans get more of it and to see more of it.

So have you managed to take a vacation?

Not really. I have taken a day or two here and there.

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