Thursday, October 23, 2008

Finding its Niche

Steve Dittmore blogged here yesterday about the opening of the World Series on FOX Wednesday night and the opening featuring Barack Obama and John McCain. But if McCain or Obama do for our country what they did for television ratings, we're in a heap o' trouble.

There has been a definite trend among recent World Series'--the 2006 WS had the worst television ratings of all time, followed closely by the 2007 WS and the 2002 WS. And at this rate, the current Series is headed to another ratings disaster. There are all kinds of reasons people aren't watching: smaller market teams, short series, games that end after midnight, etc.

FOX is the (un)lucky network stuck with putting the games in prime time and paying millions for the privilege of having hardly anyone watch. FOX executives will tell you that everything will be fine if the series goes 6 or 7 games, but that's hardly reassuring to a network spending $2 billion to televise baseball and has the WS rights until 2013. (Just ask CBS about spending megabucks for baseball rights).

The trend has a couple of important ramifications. Primarily, it may eventually force the Series to niche status on a cable network. Baseball hasn't been the "National Pastime" for decades and the World Series is anything but "must see TV." Some divisional playoff games have already appeared on TBS, and the lower numbers combined with an embarrassing power outage incident suggest the game is not quite ready for prime time anymore. Sad to say, but baseball appears headed for a place somewhere between the Do It Yourself Network and Lifetime.

Secondly, if people aren't going to watch the games then FOX has to recoup its investment in other ways, like product placement. The cheesy (pardon the pun) giveaway by Taco Bell (free tacos for America!) during the game prompted CNBC reporter Darren Rovell (as quoted by the Boston Globe) to complain that "a World Series game broke out in the middle of a Taco Bell commercial." The estimated value of the free advertising for Taco Bell? Around $8 million over two games.

A true Catch-22 here. Fewer viewers means more product placement, but the likelihood of getting more viewers is slim because people don't want to watch a game and be bombarded by constant commercial placements. End result? The people who really want to watch, the true baseball fans, are the ones who have to suffer. Here's hoping they find a dedicated cable channel (like the soon-to-be-launched MLB Network) that will give them the game the way they really want it.


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