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Fox throws change-up: Televised baseball games moving from fall to spring

Dec 9, 2002  •  Post A Comment

The Major League Baseball season will start a little early on Fox Broadcasting next year.
The network is taking two Saturday games of the week off its September 2003 national TV schedule and adding two games to the network lineup in May, Electronic Media has learned.
But affiliates are concerned that lower baseball viewership in May will translate into lower local ad revenues.
It’s a one-year experiment that Fox hopes will boost the season ratings average of its game of the week, which in 2002 averaged 3.4 million viewers. Ratings momentum was hitting a seven-season high of 4 million per game until it was slowed in August by threats of a players’ strike that that didn’t happen. Fox ended 2001 with a $225 million write-down on the six-year, $2.5 billion contract that will expire after the 2006 season.
“Since, in our view, a better schedule is available in May than on these two dates in September, and there’s no longer Saturday afternoon competition from the NBA, it seems like a good time to try this,” said a Fox Sports spokesman. “We expect ratings for the May dates to be at least 50 percent higher than the two swapped-out September dates.”
The network’s baseball coverage will begin May 17, run continuously through Sept. 6, take off Sept. 13 and Sept. 20 and resume on Sept. 27.
Fox affiliates, who will get back the baseball time in September, were caught off-guard when they were notified of the plan Nov. 25. They understand that college football competition eats into baseball viewership on fall Saturday afternoons. But they are not convinced that higher viewership in May, when the baseball season is too young for any given game to have much significance, automatically translates into higher ad rates than the stations might be able to get for games in September, when any game could have an impact on the quest for a berth in the World Series.
Some affiliates also worry that forcing the viewers to go elsewhere for their baseball-even for as little as two weeks-in September when momentum is building toward pennant fever pitch could erode the Fox baseball brand.
The Sept. 13 and Sept. 20 games would revert to local TV rights holders. Of the 28 U.S.-based MLB teams, 25 have sold their local TV rights to Fox SportsNets or local cable operators or over-the-air TV stations. (Fox-owned-and-operated stations do not, as a group, stand to make hay with the September-May swap-out, because local TV rights to baseball are held only by WFXT-TV in Boston (Red Sox), KCOP-TV in Los Angeles ( Dodgers) and KDFW-TV in Dallas-Fort Worth (Texas Rangers).
In general, said John Tupper, chairman of the Fox affiliates board of governors, “I’m not sure this [experiment] is of benefit to affiliates with respect to profitability. We will be studying to see if that is the case.”
MLB did not respond to requests for comment, but is said to have agreed to Fox Sports’ proposal in the spirit of being a good partner.
The network thinks the experiment and the worries it raises among the Fox affiliate body are “nonissues,” whether it’s the question mark over ad rates or the element of surprise. Fox affiliates were similarly caught off-guard when the network announced to the press a commercial-free sophomore-season premiere for “24.”