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Will This Be the Lowest-Rated World Series Ever?

NEW YORK -- The dispute between Cablevision and News Corp./Fox is looking more and more likely by the hour to keep the World Series out of the cabler's 3 million East Coast homes.

Fox is optimistic that the Series can deliver strong viewership again this year, but the dispute could dampen ratings, which at least one observer predicts will already be dismal. These are the upstart Texas Rangers and San Francisco Giants, after all.

"I expect this could be the lowest-rated World Series ever," said Brad Adgate, senior vp research at Horizon Media. "It's not a great matchup for casual viewers."

Adgate pointed to the 13.6 million average viewers for the 2008 series between the Philadelphia Phillies and Tampa Bay Rays as the recent low point. That, however, was followed by a rise last year to an average of 19.4 million when the New York Yankees beat the Phillies in the highest-rated Series in five years.

Although the Yankees are missing, San Francisco and Dallas/Fort Worth are among the top 10 media markets and should at least get strong tune-ins from hometown fans. Said John Shelton, CEO of media-buying software firm Strata, "Since Texas has never been in the series, the entire state will be watching."

Fox expects its highest primetime ratings of this season from the World Series, beating Glee and every freshman show on broadcast TV, and making it a top 10 show, a source said. Game 1 is set for Wednesday night at San Francisco.

Patrick Rishe, director of SportsImpacts and a sports business professor at Webster University, also is more optimistic than Adgate.

"This year's World Series will be in between 2008 and 2009's ratings -- probably close to a 10 share," he said.

He said this year's matchup is more compelling than it might seem at first. "The pitching matchups [with Cliff Lee and Tim Lincecum as headliners] are juicy and potentially historic," Rishe said. "The Texas market is large, and the San Francisco market is passionate if not bandwagonish."

And the Josh Hamilton redemption story following the Texas star's struggles with alcohol and drugs is "compelling."

In other good news for Fox, World Series advertising revenue for the network, excluding local stations, has been on the rise. In 2007, the Series brought Fox about $158 million, followed by $179 million in 2008 and $235 million last year, according to data from advertising tracker Kantar Media.

This month, reports said that Fox has sold about 90% of the commercial inventory for the Series. Ad prices went for about $450,000 for 30-second spots, whereas National League Championship Series spots on Fox cost about $225,000, one report said. That would have been 7%-9% above last year, it said.

"I suspect they have sold well as the economy is stronger and sports viewing has been up," Adgate said.

If ratings in Cablevision markets get hurt by the Fox dispute, "it surely will be felt more by the local station in New York than the network," Adgate said. But he couldn't say if any shortfalls would be financially material.

Miller Tabak analyst David Joyce noted that Cablevision homes make up about only about 3% at most of Fox's ratings base.

The number of games is what ultimately will determine Fox's World Series success. Not even the strongest matchup is strong enough to make up the difference between a six- or seven-game series and one that ends after four or five.

"The over-arching key to success is volume, and since there hasn't been a seven-game World Series since 2002, we're due," a Fox spokesman said. "We've got two evenly matched teams from good-sized markets who have earned the right to play for a world championship, so a lengthy, compelling series should draw in the casual viewer."

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Any make-goods to compensate for ratings shortfalls traditionally come in later games. If ratings do well all along, the later games are pure gravy for Fox's bottom line.

Although the FCC has put pressure on Fox and Cablevision to find a resolution ahead of the baseball showdown, the sides don't seem closer to a new retransmission agreement.

Neither side commented on the state of talks Monday, but sources said the most recent telephone interaction took place last week.

Wall Street analysts said that the pressure on Cablevision to reach a quick deal has been eased with the Yankees and Phillies being eliminated. Plus, the New York Giants are not scheduled for NFL action on Fox until Nov. 7. Cablevision, though, must worry that consumers will switch to Verizon's FiOS TV, satcaster DirecTV or other alternatives.

"It may stretch it out longer [and] does lessen pressure on Cablevision given how most consumers apportion blame," Wunderlich Securities analyst Matthew Harrigan said about the effect of the World Series matchup on the dispute.

Late Monday, Fox and Cablevision said they have filed information that the FCC had requested Friday to evaluate whether they have negotiated in "good faith." If the FCC concludes that one or both sides failed to do that, it can demand they start doing so or impose fines.

Cablevision said Monday that "News Corp. has refused to negotiate in good faith by demanding a 'take it or leave it' rate for Fox 5," its Fox station in New York, among other things.

It also charged that Fox deliberately timed the deadline to black out stations in New York "to ensure that Cablevision customers would be denied access to major national sporting events including Major League Baseball playoffs and the World Series unless Cablevision accepted its 'take it or leave it' demands."

In its letter to the FCC, Fox "respectfully" declined to argue for now whether Cablevision violated its legal obligation to negotiate in good faith, saying such charges won't advance the negotiation process.

Fox did say that it has negotiated in good faith and never made "take it or leave it" demands.

"For Cablevision to still be making those claims is yet another example of their ploy to secure an advantage through government intervention," it said. "Fox once again calls on Cablevision to stop punishing their subscribers in service of a cynical political strategy and resume constructive negotiations."