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Tuning out

Fans to pay price for declining postseason ratings

Posted: Monday October 23, 2006 12:20PM; Updated: Monday October 23, 2006 2:14PM
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Anthony Reyes' Game 1 gem wasn't enough to attract the casual viewer.
Anthony Reyes' Game 1 gem wasn't enough to attract the casual viewer.
Jimmy DeFlippo/US PRESSWIRE
Heading South
Yearly national ratings for the World Series, as compiled by Nielsen Media Research. The rating is the percentage of households with televisions watching a program and the share is the percentage of households watching a program among those with televisons in use at the time:
Year Network Ratings Share
2005 FOX 11.1 19
2004 FOX 15.8 25
2003 FOX 12.8 22
2002 FOX 11.9 20
2001 FOX 15.7 25
2000 FOX 12.4 21
1999 NBC 16.0 26
1998 FOX 14.1 24
1997 NBC 16.8 29
1996 FOX 17.4 29
1995 ABC-NBC 19.5 33
1994 No Series -- --
1993 CBS 17.3 30
1992 CBS 20.2 34
1991 CBS 24.0 39
1990 CBS 20.8 36
1989 ABC 16.4 30
1988 NBC 23.9 39
1987 ABC 24.0 41
1986 NBC 28.6 46
1985 ABC 25.3 39
1984 NBC 22.9 40
1983 ABC 23.3 41
1982 NBC 28.0 49
1981 ABC 30.0 49
1980 NBC 32.8 56
1979 ABC 28.0 51
1978 NBC 32.7 56
1977 ABC 29.9 52
1976 NBC 27.7 48
1975 NBC 29.0 53
1974 NBC 25.6 47
1973 NBC 30.7 57
1972 NBC 27.5 58
1971 NBC 24.2 59
1970 NBC 19.4 53
1969 NBC 22.4 58
1968 NBC 22.8 57
SOURCE: AP
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Just as baseball's top brass continues to agonize over what to do about its shrinking TV audience, core fans have every reason to wonder how sagging ratings will affect the way their sport is broadcast.

It's no fun being part of a diminishing society. But sadly, the once robust Television Republic of United Baseball Lovers Everywhere (TROUBLE) seems seems to be losing people every year.

Overnight numbers for Saturday's World Series opener dropped 25 percent from 2005's Game 1, according to Variety, continuing a trend that has pervaded the 2006 postseason. Even the highest-rated playoff game of the year, Game 7 of the National League Championship Series, drew an audience 17 percent lower than the last NLCS Game 7, Houston-St. Louis in 2004.

"[The ratings] have definitely disappointed," Variety reporter and TV analyst Rick Kissell said, "although it's not at all surprising given the lopsided series and quick exit of the Yankees."

No, not even George Steinbrenner can effectively guarantee New York's fan base will be on the edge of its remote through the end of every October -- and apparently talking tuxedoed troubadour Tommy Lasorda has only been preaching to the choir.

Already, we've learned that fans will be paying a price for baseball's ratings shortfall, with Variety reporting that MLB has agreed to expand commercial time between half-innings on Fox telecasts as part of its new contract beginning next season.

So the questions hover like an infield fly: Is there any end to baseball's television decline? Will Fox or its new postseason broadcast partner, TBS, address the sport's ragged ratings by subverting the game itself?

The answers aren't completely discouraging.

For one, things are tough all over. Despite the year-to-year decline evidenced in Game 1, baseball on Fox still beat all other programming Saturday night. Increased viewing options have practically sunk prime-time ratings for even the top network shows.

Baseball, however deflated, still provides a lifeboat.

"It's hard for the broadcast nets to reach young men," Kissell said, "and postseason baseball consistently wins its nights in male demos -- unless it goes up against football -- and advertisers like that."

Additionally, while Fox prays every October for a big-city, big-ratings World Series, their frustration may be indicative of a healthier sport.

"MLB has been working toward better parity through revenue sharing," Baseball Prospectus business analyst Maury Brown said. "They've added the wild card, and with that, we're on the verge of the seventh different club to win the World Series in as many years. With parity comes the fact that you might wind up with matchups that might not be compelling for the average fan."

But the diversity on the World Series trophy brings baseball closer to what many have believed to be the NFL's biggest selling point -- the ability for just about any team to contend (at least some of the time). With a team like the Detroit Tigers rebounding from 43 wins in 2003 and 71 in 2005 to reach the Fall Classic, following in the footsteps of surprising title runs by Arizona and Florida this decade, there's nationwide hope to spare.

As executives at Fox repeatedly have said, it's all about competition. A seven-game series between any two teams brings in more revenue than even a New York-Los Angeles short series.

It's enough to make Los Angeles Daily News sports media columnist Tom Hoffarth muse about whether the ratings are giving baseball a fair shake.

"I'm constantly amazed at how much stock TV execs put into Nielsen ratings," Hoffarth said, "because they weren't created to assess the actual 'viewer attendance,' but to give them some kind of vague measurement that could be used to show advertisers that this is what we think people are doing with their TV sets. Any ratings system that doesn't take into account those watching in sports bars, dorms, hotels and office buildings, and has no accountability for TiVo or DVR players, or who's watching on MLB.com on video streaming, plus has a different measure for those watching over-the-air versus cable, just seems to be very unstable and hard to bank on.

"I'm of the Billy Packer thinking -- gasp -- that it's crazy to assume viewership is down year after year when all you read and hear and feel is that the sport is a very healthy spectator activity."

Nevertheless, there's no doubt that ratings are affecting baseball's television future. Cable outlet TBS has acquired the rights to televise all Division Series games, plus one Championship Series (the NL one year, the AL the next), through 2013.

"I think Fox is smart because it keeps the highest-rated event, the World Series, and eliminates the lowest-rated," Kissell said.

The losers are the fans who don't have cable, though as Brown pointed out, TBS can be seen in about 90 million homes. Unfortunately, 20 million homes don't have the network. Even here, though, there is a silver lining -- according to Kissell, MLB has written into its television contracts that every home market must make its postseason games available on over-the-air broadcasts.

If it were completely smooth sailing, though, it wouldn't be baseball. One thing the introduction of TBS and its sister network, TNT, into postseason baseball will bring is yet another wave in the annual October channel surf. While finding the right station for a baseball game is as simple as checking your local listings, higher ratings do depend on how many casual fans will stumble upon the game or decide to watch at the last minute.

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