By Staff -- Broadcasting & Cable, 10/29/2006 7:00:00 PM
As the baseball season winds down and the network development season heats up, Fox's entertainment side will need to step up to the plate.
This year's World Series brings to a close Fox's $417 million-a-year deal, which gives way to a new pact that has the network cutting back significantly on its baseball-playoff coverage.
Beginning in 2007, Fox will spend just $250 million a year to carry the World Series and one of the two League Championship Series. Turner happily stepped in to pick up the other LCS and the first round of the post-season. Fox previously had it all.
A quick glance at the ratings might suggest that Fox's decision to cut back on the ball was prescient, especially since this World Series started out as far from a Fall Classic. The St. Louis Cardinals-Detroit Tigers match-up produced the lowest-rated World Series ever through the first three games.
A combination of two small-market teams with few well-known stars, rainouts and some lopsided games created a perfect storm that left Fox execs praying for a six- or seven-game series to bail them out.
Each game late in the series can bring in upwards of $20 million apiece and make up for under-deliveries to advertisers resulting from low ratings early in a series. So a long World Series is still better than a short one, even if the ratings are comparatively miserable.
But despite the slumping numbers, baseball is still a hot commodity, as evidenced by the new Fox and Turner deals that eclipse Fox's current rights fee.
While Fox's luck was rotten this fall, the economics of baseball, when big draws like the New York Yankees more often than not make the playoffs, mean that, over the course of a deal, the numbers will get better.
And even this low-rated World Series has won the night for Fox each of the first three games, something that doesn't happen on a regular basis at the network until Paula, Randy and Simon trot out from the bullpen in January.
While Fox made the right move in dumping the low-rated first round of the playoffs, it remains to be seen whether passing on the extra League Championship Series will pay off. Fox's entertainment side wanted the real estate, but the first time Turner gets a Yankees-Red Sox seven-game LCS, Fox Sports execs will be kicking themselves.
So, next fall, Fox will have a lot less baseball, giving its programmers what they hope is more time to get traction for their fall schedule.
And that is why the network's development crew has to deliver. Using baseball as an excuse for a bad fall season won't work as well come 2007. Remember, baseball didn't make Happy Hour a bad show. Fox will now have the chance to come out swinging for the first time in years with at least an extra week of baseball-free programming starting next autumn.
Then it's up to Fox Entertainment to score.
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