Historic Braves-TBS partnership to end
Superstation put Atlanta franchise into the national spotlight
ATLANTA -- When Ted Turner purchased the Atlanta Braves in 1976, one of the few things he knew about baseball was the fact that it would provide nightly programming for his television station WTCG -- which appropriately stood for Watch This Channel Grow.
Turner's vision to beam WTCG -- which would grow into superstation TBS -- across the country revolutionized the cable industry and, at the same time, reaffirmed the belief that baseball truly is America's pastime.
Despite the fact that the Braves were one of the worst teams in baseball during the 1970s and throughout much of the 1980s, they appropriately became known as America's Team. Fans far and wide knew they could come home most every night to find Pete Van Wieren and Skip Caray bringing the Braves into their living rooms.
"It was a national broadcast," said Van Wieren, who, like Caray, has been a Braves broadcaster since 1976. "But it was a national broadcast about a local team from a local perspective. We weren't trying to be neutral. We were Braves broadcasters, and, when the Braves did something good, we would react that way."
For 30 years, TBS has showcased the Braves to a national audience and allowed fans in remote towns like Storm Lake, Iowa, to adopt the Braves as their team. But, like all good things, this revolutionizing programming is nearing its end.
With MLB.com and satellite providers providing the opportunity to watch any and all games throughout the course of a season, the Braves are no longer the only game being shown in nearly every town throughout the United States.
Looking to capitalize on the advertising dollars that they can gain by running old movies or "Seinfeld" re-runs, TBS has decided to end its affiliation with the Braves. The station will begin airing all Division Series games this year and beginning next year, their regular season broadcasts will consist solely of a Sunday Game of the Week package, which will feature all Major League teams, not just the Braves.
"I've got one more [broadcast] left, and I'm already worried about it, because I don't know if I'll be able to hold my composure," Caray said. "In essence, you're saying goodbye to people who you've been part of their life for a long time. My access to them will now be denied."
Caray was assigned to work just 10 TBS games this year. Most of his time has been spent providing the radio broadcast of Braves games with Van Wieren.
Along with their mentor and long-time friend, Ernie Johnson Sr., Caray and Van Wieren made Turner's vision work. It didn't matter that the Braves were getting pounded on a regular basis throughout the 1980s. This close-knit broadcast team provided a product that the nation craved and appreciated.
"On the one hand, it's sad to see that era come to an end," Van Wieren said. "On the other hand, the industry has changed so much now to where every game is available to every fan, whether it's on the computer or on television. You can see any game you want right now. So there really isn't a market for that anymore. If you tried it today, I don't know if it would work. But it certainly was fun while it lasted."
Thinking back on those early days when they were making Turner's vision a reality, Caray says, "I used to always liken it to being on the first wagon train going west. You didn't know where you were going, but you were having a lot of fun trying to get there."
Soon after the Braves became available to a national audience, so too did the Cubs -- via WGN. But with the Cubs playing their home games during the afternoon, the Braves for a long time were the only baseball game being shown nationally in the prime-time slot.
As time progressed, the Braves were suddenly going to the Astrodome and finding that they had more fans present than the Astros. Or they'd arrive in St. Louis to find families that routinely watched them in Arkansas had traveled to Busch Stadium to see their favorite players in person.
This was certainly a positive not envisioned by then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn or Reds general manager Dick Wagner, who were both strongly against Turner's desire to provide these nightly broadcasts to a national audience.
"When [Turner] started broadcasting, you've got to remember we weren't drawing anything," said Braves manager Bobby Cox, whose first managerial stint in Atlanta was from 1978-81. "Logically, who would want to come to a game when you could watch it on TV?"
But soon Johnson, Van Wieren and Caray would all learn that the critics were simply wrong. Fans everywhere were watching these nightly broadcasts and at the same time fueling their interests in baseball. There were a number of instances where this trio would be walking through an airport, only to be stopped by some fan from some remote town, who simply wanted to thank them for their broadcasts.
|"It put the Braves on the map all over the world. People saw our games everywhere. I guess everything comes to an end."|
|-- Braves manager Bobby Cox|
Then there was that time when the city manager of Hilo, Hawaii, while attending a conference in Atlanta, invited the three broadcasters to serve as his guests for lunch. While providing gifts, he told Van Wieren, Caray and Johnson about how popular they'd become in his city.
During the early years, Turner used to replay the games during the early morning hours on the East Coast. With this being prime-time viewing hours in Hawaii, Dale Murphy and the rest of his Braves teammates became regular television stars on the islands.
"When you walked in the ballparks in San Francisco and into the ballparks in Houston and you see people holding up banners for your station, the broadcasters and your players, you're thinking, 'Wow, this is really something special,'" Van Wieren said.
Fortunately for Van Wieren and Caray, their many years of broadcasting bad baseball teams were rewarded with the opportunity to enjoy the unprecedented streak of 14 consecutive division titles achieved by the Braves.
Unfortunately, as the Braves were improving during the early 1990s, ESPN was also changing the television industry. The network's agreement with Major League Baseball to have national exclusivity on Wednesday nights led to the creation of regional networks like SportSouth.
Instead of carrying at least 150 games per season, TBS was now airing around 125. Soon after it was carrying just 90 games to a national audience, and when ratings continued to plummet, the Superstation found itself in its current position, which allows it to carry somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 games.
"It's like my father always used to say, 'All good things must come to an end," said TBS producer Glenn Diamond, who has been part of Braves broadcasts for 25 years.
When Caray and Van Wieren look back on this historical ride, there's definite opportunity to laugh. Minus the 1982 National League West champions and the consecutive MVPs Murphy captured, there wasn't a whole lot of good happening on the field in Atlanta during their early broadcasting years.
But they had fun and in doing so, they kept a captive and regular audience. As Caray found out, the only thing Turner really didn't let them do was make fun of the movies that were going to air following the games.
"[Turner] didn't try to make us be network guys," Van Wieren said. "If we wanted to have fun, he let us have fun. If the team was playing lousy, he let us say that. We didn't have to be mouthpieces for the organization and because of that, we were each able to develop our own followings."
Many of the Braves' current players, including Jeff Francoeur, grew up watching the Braves on TBS. What they once knew as America's Team, they now know as their own.
"It's going to be weird to play for this team and not be playing on TBS," Francoeur said. "Wherever you were, whether you were on vacation or whatever, you could always follow the Braves."
Those days when Braves fans could tune to TBS to find either a Braves game or Andy Griffith re-run during a rain delay have come to a close. But the memories and lasting benefits won't be forgotten.
"It was great," Cox said. "It put the Braves on the map all over the world. People saw our games everywhere. I guess everything comes to an end."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.