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When the San Francisco Giants take Kauffman Stadium field against the Kansas City Royals in the 110th edition of the World Series on Tuesday, executives at Fox Broadcasting won’t be rooting for either team. They will instead be hoping that the series is competitive enough to last six or seven games.
Conventional wisdom is that this series between two underdogs (both are wild card teams) is doomed to low TV ratings because it’s not a marquee matchup like the Yankees vs. Red Sox. Both are considered relatively small market teams.
The San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose area is the sixth-largest TV market, while Kansas City is the 31st. But Fox executives insist history shows that the matchup is not the primary thing that drives viewership.
“I would rather have a seven-game series between any two teams than a four-game series between the Yankees and Dodgers,” says Michael Mulvihill, senior vp, programming, research and content strategy for Fox Sports Media Group. “You’re always going to root for a game six, and then for a game seven.”
Mulvihill says that a seven-game series would mean 75 percent more advertising availabilities than a four-game series and would have a huge impact on Fox’s bottom line.
“There’s no match up that can make up a 75 percent difference,” says Mulvihill, “so we worry less about the matchup than people would imagine we do.”
This has been a baseball postseason in which Fox has had a different agenda than many fans, so why should the series be any different? In the first year of a rich new eight-year baseball contract that is costing Fox a reported $4 billion ($500 million a year), a major goal has been to use the playoffs to bring viewers to Fox Sports 1, a cable service launched by 21st Century Fox 15 months ago.
Mulvihill calls the baseball playoffs “probably the most important piece of programming we’ve had on our air,” adding that, “It almost feels like a second launch of the channel because we are now showcasing something a lot of people care passionately about.”
The idea is that viewers will care enough to track down Fox Sports 1 which is available in about 85 percent of U.S. TV homes, often on a position people rarely even surf past. In Los Angeles, for instance, where Time Warner Cable is the largest pay provider, Fox Sports 1 is channel 400 on most systems.
“We really need bit by bit to get people to know where to go for Fox Sports 1,” says Mulvihill, “and to have us top of mind when they’re just looking for something to watch.”
Mulvihill admits those he calls “casual fans” may give up trying to find the station before they figure it out — at least until game six or seven, when it becomes worth an extra effort.
“I don’t think it’s uncommon at all when a sports property changes networks that you see a little bit of a learning curve in play,” says Mulvihill, adding that is the reason “our deals are as longterm as they are. It’s a process for people to fully integrate us into their viewing habits.”
The impact of the change was clear during both the Division Series and the League Championship Series.
For instance, on Oct. 3 when the Detroit Tigers played the Baltimore Orioles, the game on cable channel TBS attracted about 2.3 million viewers, up 172 percent from the same game in 2013. Turner has carried playoff games since 2007.
That same day, when the Giants took on the Washington Nationals on Fox Sports 1, there were just over 2 million viewers, down 15 percent from the prior year on TBS.
Mulvihill says the actual ratings in the approximately 85 million homes in which Fox Sports 1 is available were on a par with what the Turner channels did last year. He blames the 15 percent gap in national reach for the shortfall in total viewers.
That is still better than the MLB Network, owned by baseball, which carried some of the playoff games. It is only in about 61 percent of American TV homes.
“In much the same way hitters once treated cork and pine tar,” lamented a Philadelphia Inquirer sports writer, “baseball appears to have gone to great lengths to hide the start of its 2014 postseason.”
It is a lament Los Angeles fans would understand after a season in which about 70 percent of area TV homes were not able to watch most Dodger games because they were only on Time Warner Cable due to a dispute over pricing with other providers, most notably DirecTV.
Mulvihill predicts with more events including NASCAR and the Women’s World Cup coming up between now and March on Fox Sports 1, fans will figure it out as many public venues have had to do.
In New York City, Mulvihill says he often goes to lunch at two restaurants near his office where he had never seen Fox Sports 1 on the big screens over the bar — until recently.
“We’ve been on 15 months and never had our channel on at lunchtime,” says Mulvihill. “Now, because of the [playoffs], there we are. So I think events like this do get you into regular circulation in homes and public places.”
For now, he just hopes for a seven-game series which draws ratings that make the Fox’s baseball bet among the most watched TV events of the year. All of the World Series games are on Fox Broadcasting nationwide
“What we have found is that year after year the World Series does rating that would make it equivalent to a top-ten show in overall viewership,” adds Mulvihill, “and a top five show in the most important demos to us, the younger male demographic.”
By the way, only two World Series have gone seven games since 2002 when the then-Anaheim Angels played, who else, the San Francisco Giants. The St. Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers also went seven games in 2011. So the odds are long that it will go seven; but then again, Kansas City hasn’t made it this far since 1985, so this could be the year of the improbable.
Let the games, and the telecasts, begin.
CORRECTION Oct. 21, 8 a.m. pst – Fox Sports 1 is available in 85 million TV homes. There were two World Series that went seven games since 2002.
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