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Baseball’s Out of the Park: After a Huge Playoff Audience, Fox Takes Targeted Approach

Oct 25, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Fox Broadcasting hit a home run last week with baseball playoffs that were more competitive and went longer than expected. This week, the network is looking to once again shake up the competitive landscape with a World Series expected to have strong audience appeal.

Major League Baseball’s American League Championship Series between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees in particular was seven games of ratings gold. On Wednesday, Oct. 20, Fox scored an 11.8 rating and 29 share in the adults 18 to 49 demographic for the seventh game of the series, bringing in 31.46 million total viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. With those kinds of numbers, one might expect Fox executives to crow about what a huge opportunity baseball is in terms of introducing new shows. But if anything, the network is managing expectations.

“Unless we create repulsive promotions, it can’t hurt,” said Preston Beckman, Fox’s executive VP of strategic program planning and research. “When you’re looking at any of these big events, whether it’s the Olympics or the World Series, you have somewhat of a borrowed audience. The proof is how NBC’s shows performed after the Olympics. We’ve tried to do as much research as we can on who’s watching.”

NBC had mixed results off the Athens Olympics. The network premiered the animated comedy “Father of the Pride” Aug. 30 and the action drama “Hawaii” Sept. 1, before the official launch of the 2004-05 season, hoping to build momentum from the Summer Games. “Pride” premiered with a 7.7/12 among adults 18 to 49, but by Oct. 12 the show was down to a 3.7/9. “Hawaii” opened with a 3.3/11 in the demo, but slipped to a 2.0/6 by Oct. 6, ranking the network fifth in the time period among adults 18 to 49. A week later NBC said it would remove “Hawaii” from the schedule for the November sweeps.

Fox anticipates strong ratings for the World Series, which features a matchup between the Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals. The Series is a must-see event for many viewers, in part because the Red Sox have not won a World Series since 1918. Still, Fox is being cautious, hoping to avoid the mistakes of other networks that have failed to launch series off huge tentpole events. Fox is taking what it considers a more realistic and targeted approach to promoting its fall premieres.

Mr. Beckman said Fox’s research shows baseball’s borrowed audience is most likely to stay with network television when it is offered unscripted programming, which explains why the network is running promotions pushing “My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss,” “The Rebel Billionaire: Branson’s Quest for the Best” and “Nanny 911.”

“They are all shows people who aren’t in the traditional Fox audience might go, `Hey, I’ll check that out,”‘ he said.

The network is not ignoring scripted series, however. It is reminding viewers about the Nov. 7 season premiere of its Sunday night lineup, which includes the launch of the second season of recent Emmy winner “Arrested Development.” The new Tuesday night medical drama “House” is also being pumped during baseball, since Fox believes its controversial lead character and gritty feel make it a standout, particularly with that hard-to-reach borrowed audience.

“We are taking a page out of the `24′ playbook,” Mr. Beckman said. “`24′ wasn’t the traditional Fox show. We see `House’ as a very broad show that can appeal to a lot of viewers who don’t see Fox as their first point of rest on the dial.”

Mr. Beckman noted that a portion of Fox’s baseball audience consists of viewers who do not regularly watch broadcast television, and conceded that the promos may have little effect on them. That also means the games didn’t necessarily take away other networks’ viewers. For instance, ABC’s “Lost” retained 93 percent of its audience among adults 18 to 49 from the previous week, while The WB was flat in the demo for the night. And UPN was up slightly with its regular schedule of “America’s Next Top Model” and “Kevin Hill.”

“You don’t see significant changes in their ratings,” he said, “and I think [that’s] because so many of those people who watch baseball aren’t watching the networks. You saw with the Olympics it wasn’t like NBC could capitalize on that, which means we have to be realistic.”

Fox is trying to avoid what it sees as the mistakes of last year’s postseason baseball promotions, which focused on “Joe Millionaire 2” and the short-lived drama “Skin,” the Romeo-and-Juliet story set in the world of porn and politics. The “Joe” franchise died, and “Skin” was quickly canceled.

“To be a hundred percent honest, the way we sold the show, we sold it as a teen romance,” Mr. Beckman said of “Skin.” “We’re a lot more cognizant [now] of how to sell shows in baseball than we have been.”

With “Skin” as the cautionary tale, Fox’s decision to promo the new season of “The O.C.” during baseball might seem counterintuitive. But Mr. Beckman said the network is doing everything it can to inform viewers that the show will premiere on Thursdays.

“We’re not selling a show, we’re selling a move,” he said. “Obviously the biggest priority we have is to get traction on Thursday night with a show we all believe might get us in the game.”

The Red Sox-Yankees series didn’t just attract male viewers. On Oct. 20, ABC’s “Lost” won the 8 p.m. (ET) time period among all key women demos and teen girls, but from 9 p.m. on, baseball was the No. 1 program among women.

The success of last week’s playoffs also has implications for Fox’s competitors. For most of the fall, Fox is in the awkward position of running repeats against premieres on other networks, which don’t have to worry about disruptive pre-emptions during the baseball playoffs. But when the championships attract huge audiences, other networks are put on the defensive.

“It does create a little bit of inertia with our competitors,” Mr. Beckman said. “The attention starts to drift away from their shows and they start to see a dip in the ratings. It helps break some of the viewing habits that people are forming with other networks.”

On the evening of Oct. 19, after it was clear the Yankees and Red Sox were destined for a seventh and final game, CBS made the eleventh-hour decision to pull the Oct. 20 season premiere of “King of Queens,” the series premiere of “Center of the Universe” and a new episode of “CSI: NY,” which would have gone head-to-head with baseball. Instead, the network went with repeats of “CSI: Miami” and “CSI.” The “CSI: Miami” repeat scored a 3.7/8 in adults 18 to 49 at 9 p.m., down 20 percent from a “CSI: Miami” repeat that aired in the time period Oct. 6. (CBS pre-empted its programming Wednesday, Oct. 13, for a presidential debate.)

NBC took a different strategy, going ahead with the 9 p.m. season premiere of “The West Wing,” which scored a 4.0/9 in adults 18 to 49, down 35 percent from its Sept. 24 premiere last season. The network stood by airing the premiere.

“It was the right decision for NBC,” a network spokesperson said. “We had been promoting the premiere of `West Wing’ for some time, and we felt viewers were expecting it. Despite the baseball game, we got solid numbers for the show.”