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Series tosses Fox lineup a wicked curve

October 16, 2002|Brian Lowry | Times Staff Writer

If prime-time scheduling is a bit of a chess match, broadcasting playoff baseball limits the moves available to the host network -- a handicap Fox is again grappling to overcome this season.

The network, which will televise the World Series beginning Saturday, generally attracts a younger audience than the elder broadcast networks, whereas baseball skews a bit older and primarily appeals to men.

In addition, both League Championship Series ended in five games after the San Francisco Giants' elimination of St. Louis on Monday, setting up an all-California World Series, fraught with its own potential ratings headaches. As a result, Fox has been forced to run two nights of repeats heading into the Series, essentially sitting out the ratings derby while competitors' programs attempt to establish a toehold with viewers.

The network did scramble to put on an original program Thursday night, scheduling a live edition of "America's Most Wanted" focusing on the sniper attacks surrounding Washington, D.C.

"Baseball is a blessing and a curse," said David Poltrack, executive vice president of research at CBS, which aired the playoffs exclusively from 1990 to 1993. "When it works, it gets some very nice ratings, and that's very helpful, but it really is a nightmare for the programming people."

Fox officials acknowledge that having to preempt or delay its regular programs is frustrating and has probably freed a segment of the audience to sample rival networks, allowing younger viewers of its popular sitcom "That '70s Show," for example, to take a look at ABC's "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter," starring John Ritter, at 8 p.m. Tuesdays.

Similarly, the WB superhero series "Birds of Prey" opened to strong ratings last Wednesday, and tonight will face a rerun of Fox's new action show "Fastlane," thrown on with little promotion because there's no baseball.

On the plus side, the network is hoping that large audiences for the World Series will provide a springboard for programs, with series such as "24," "Malcolm in the Middle," producer David E. Kelley's new legal series, "girls club," and "Boston Public" all scheduled to begin their seasons in late October, just before the November rating sweeps.

Preston Beckman, Fox's executive vice president of strategic program planning, called ratings for baseball "a borrowed audience," in the sense that the games bring people to the set who are not frequent viewers of prime-time series in general and, in some instances, Fox in particular.

Citing the extensive promotion viewers will see during the games, he said, "It's our job to convince them there are some good shows over here."

Fox has expressed little concern, meanwhile, about the fact that it has ended up with two teams from California, maintaining that a hotly contested six- or seven-game series is always the panacea for such concerns.

It does help having major TV markets represented, and Los Angeles and San Francisco are the nation's second and fifth largest, respectively, jointly accounting for more than 7% of all U.S. homes with television.

Still, having both teams on the West Coast could play a role in how the games affect competitors. Any championship inevitably attracts its biggest ratings in the host cities, meaning the highest tune-in will be in the Los Angeles and San Francisco viewing areas, where the games will likely be over before 9 p.m.

Because of that dynamic, CBS' Poltrack suggested competing networks might benefit, since viewers in those cities who channel-surf after the games will still have prime-time programs available on other channels versus post-game sitcom reruns on the local Fox stations.

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