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MLB online chief optimistic on relaxing blackouts on hometown teams, possibly by next season

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NEW YORK, N.Y. - An easing of blackout restrictions on Major League Baseball games online could come as early as next season, according to the head of baseball's online business.

In an interview this week, Bob Bowman said he is optimistic that a deal could be reached soon with various cable operators, channels and ballclubs. The catch is that even with an MLB.TV subscription, which starts at $20 a month, fans will also need a cable or satellite TV subscription to view hometown teams at home.

"Everyone's trying to solve it," Bowman said. "If our hands were 4 feet apart three or four years ago, they are now 6 inches apart," Bowman said. "We're moving in the right way. We continue to talk. The dialogue is professional."

Currently, games involving hometown teams are blocked online, regardless of where they are played. That's because television channels pay millions of dollars for rights and don't want to lose audiences to online and mobile services such as MLB.TV. So Rockies fans can't watch online in Denver, but they can when they travel to Boston or San Francisco. The blackouts have been one of the most criticized aspects of MLB.TV, which streamed its first game live 12 years ago next Tuesday.

The blackouts even extend to some games that are televised regionally or nationally.

But this year, MLB.TV streamed the All-Star Game live for the first time. The game was broadcast on Fox television, and online viewers had to prove they had a cable or satellite TV package that includes Fox. It's similar to how the Olympics and World Cup games were made available online.

Baseball has similar plans for the playoffs and the World Series, which will be split on television between Fox, ESPN and Turner. Viewers will need to have ESPN on TV to watch ESPN games online and can't watch Turner games if they don't also get Turner channels. Cable and satellite packages typically include all three, though. To make it easier for viewers, baseball plans to come up with a way for users to sign in to all three at once.

In the past, MLB.TV had a post-season package that offered alternate camera angles but not the main coverage. Bowman said MLB.TV will likely offer that again this year for those who don't have the necessary television channels.

Many details are still unknown about streaming of regular season games. Should that happen, it's likely that a pay-TV package will still be needed for games that you can pick up for free with a TV antenna in local markets. It's not yet known whether streaming would be through MLB.TV or through the channel that has television rights. Bowman said those details are part of the "6 inches" still to be narrowed in talks.

Bowman said it's also possible that only some pay-TV providers and channels will agree, in which case only some games would be available without blackouts.

He said parties still need to work out "the look and the feel of it, the marketing of it, the branding of it, economics."

"If they were easy to resolve, then somebody would have done it, and if it didn't matter, then it would have been resolved," Bowman said. "In the end, we all want the same thing regardless of which side of the table you're on. We all want somebody to be able to turn on a laptop or turn on a phone and see a live game in-market."

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