Long series, no first round equal baseball win for Fox

Big ratings, full Premiere Week

Last weekend's come-from-behind victories didn't just guarantee that the Boston Red Sox will host Game 1 of the World Series beginning tonight, but they saved Fox from a potential strikeout in the ratings.

Fox couldn't have been looking forward to the prospect of a Colorado Rockies-Cleveland Indians World Series, which looked all but certain before the Red Sox came back from a 3-1 deficit in the American League Championship Series that ended Sunday. This year won't reach the heights of the 2004 World Series, when the Red Sox won their first world championship since 1918 after coming back from down three games to none to stun the New York Yankees in the ALCS. But the matchup of two high-momentum teams seems like it'll guarantee that Fox will get at least a stand-up double — maybe a triple — in the ratings, especially if the Series goes more than four games.

That will put Fox on the winning end for the first year of its new TV deal with Major League Baseball, a year that has seen Fox post home run ratings for a full-season of regular TV broadcasts and the best numbers for a League Championship Series since 2004. Turner Sports, which picked up the exclusive rights for the first-round Divisional Series playoffs and alternates the LCS with Fox, got a split decision. Its first run at the Divisional Series went as well as the Rockies' postseason, only to end up with a Chicago Cub-like return on the small-market sweep in the NLCS.

Postseason baseball is notoriously dicey. The truly national teams — the Yankees, Red Sox and Cubs — don't make it to the postseason every year, and none has gone to the World Series since 2004. The past two World Series have been low-rated, though they still gave Fox a boost in the fall months before "American Idol" dominates. But postseason baseball has to compete against original programming on its rival nets.

Sitting in the Fox Sports compound behind Fenway Park's Green Monster before Game 6 — when the Red Sox faced elimination and still had to win two at home to advance to the World Series — Fox Sports president Ed Goren said he wasn't as concerned about the ratings as much as about whether the ALCS would go seven games. A seven-game series — for which the interest builds as the elimination game nears and the CPMs increase in kind — is where the real money is made and the better ratings.

"You can have the best matchup in the world, but if it's four (games) and out, it doesn't really matter," Fox Sports broadcaster Joe Buck said.

Goren said the baseball ad climate is so hot that sales executives are openly hoping someday there will be an eight-game World Series.

"For Fox to make money, what they need is not a big market," said Brad Adgate, senior vp research at New York-based ad buyer Horizon Media. "What they need is a seven-game World Series."

Fox already has sold out the ad inventory for Games 1 through 5 at an average of $400,000 per 30-second spot. That's about a 10% increase from last year's World Series. A seven-game series surely would be sold out at higher CPMs.

But it's more than just baseball at stake. This year, for the first time in the decade Fox has carried postseason baseball, Fox has been able to have the traditional Premiere Week that in the past has eluded it. That in itself, even without the World Series factored in, has been a big win for the network's entertainment side.

"It's allowed us to premiere our shows closer to the start of the official season," Fox executive vp Preston Beckman said. "We've been able to take advantage of the network primetime launch. For the past few years, we've either premiered exceptionally early or in November. Neither of those worked for us."

An immediate benefit is that Fox hasn't had to worry about writing off all of October. While postseason baseball definitely has benefited Fox — both now and in the past in establishing the network — it's clear that the entertainment side has had a mixed view of losing at least three weeks of its schedule at a time when its rivals were gaining a toehold.

Through Sunday night, Fox's adults 18-49 ratings are up 7% compared with a year ago. It also has been able to post stronger ratings season-to-date on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.

"It made sense to cut back on the number of games because of the growth and success of our primetime lineup," Goren said. But back before "American Idol" — when Fox certainly didn't win three TV seasons in adults 18-49 as it has so far — postseason baseball was Fox's savior.

In the category of having their cake and eating it too, Fox this year skipped the traditionally low-rated Divisional Series yet managed to pull a high-rated seven-game ALCS and is on track at least now to have a pretty good World Series.

"The pre-emptions have been far less severe than they've been, and on some nights we're more than happy to have baseball to give us a rest," Beckman said. "It's been fine."

A scheduling change pushed by Fox also will help. Instead of the traditional Saturday night start to the Series, this year's starts on a Wednesday. Goren said it's partly because on a Wednesday there's no college or pro football to compete for attention. And it's also a purely sales reason: If there's a need for a Game 6 and 7, Fox's sales department will have more time to sell the spots.

"It's better to start on a Wednesday night than a Saturday night," said Kevin Collins, vp and associate media director at New York-based media agency Initiative.

Back at Fenway, producer Pete Macheska and director Bill Webb will have 25 cameras around Fenway and Coors Field in Denver as well as 100 microphones. It'll be the 10th World Series for broadcaster Buck and the record 18th for analyst Tim McCarver.

For Buck and McCarver, it's been quite a change from the hectic postseason baseball pace they've had in previous years.

"Some years, we've been to four different cities working four different games," Buck said at the Fenway Park broadcast booth. McCarver agreed that it gives much more time to prepare and watch the games.

One thing that McCarver and Buck — and Fox management — are hoping for is warmer weather in Denver and Boston, which can be chilly in late October and early November. Denver saw several inches of heavy snow Sunday just in time for the Broncos-Steelers game, though it's supposed to be a little warmer at gametime tonight.

McCarver, who had played baseball in the snow during his long major-league career, was philosophical about the weather. But Buck said he wasn't going to take any chances at all, stocking up on warm gloves and other tricks that he uses when he does football games.

His favorite trick comes from his father, legendary broadcaster Jack Buck, who taught him to use one big boot with room enough for both stocking feet. It works wonders, Buck said, except when he has to leave the booth during breaks.

Of baseball-only broadcaster McCarver and the colder weather, Buck joked, "We'll have to break him in."