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TV RATINGS

Fox gets clean-up hit with '24'

Show benefits from onslaught of promos that aired during the World Series.

October 31, 2002|Brian Lowry | Times Staff Writer

Well, thanks, baseball fans. Based on Tuesday night's ratings, you have helped ensure that the public will again be treated to a barrage of promotion for Fox shows before, between and, yes, during innings in next year's World Series.

After a stretch in which none of Fox's programs had fared especially well -- including the new David E. Kelley drama "Girls Club," which was yanked Tuesday after just two telecasts -- the critically heralded "24" delivered a stellar performance Tuesday night.

Attracting a best-yet 13.5 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research estimates, the serialized drama starring Kiefer Sutherland dominated its competitive time period among the young-adult demographics used as currency with advertisers -- surpassing, among others, NBC's "Frasier," which is showing its age, posting its lowest rating for an original episode.

Fox's "That '70s Show" also looked solid, drawing 11.2 million viewers and winning its time slot in those same key demographics against ABC's comedies "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter" and "According to Jim," which had been thriving while the Fox show was benched by the playoffs.

The numbers amount to a ninth-inning rally for Fox, whose strategy of cramming promotion for its prime-time lineup into baseball has looked increasingly suspect as the fall season has progressed.

Although there's no way to directly measure the role baseball played in alerting people to the return of "24," Tuesday's results -- reflecting a major surge from the 8.6 million viewers the program averaged its first season -- provide at least some endorsement for the value of big sporting events as a promotional vehicle.

Focusing on action and suspense, "24" was doubtless more appetizing to men -- the principal component of the baseball audience -- than "Girls Club," though to be fair, women shunned that series as well.

"It's obvious that with a broader kind of show, with significant male appeal, you do better" coming out of baseball, said Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman, who, with the network buffeted through last season and this fall, was breathing a small sigh of relief.

Networks have come to view televising sports as a loss leader -- making deals that lose money but yield ancillary benefits to other aspects of their business, from boosting profits at their TV stations to offering a venue to schmooze media buyers and sponsors.

Amid mounting losses, however, that approach has grown more difficult to justify in recent years, prompting NBC to walk away from its professional basketball and football contracts. In February, Fox parent News Corp. underscored just how tough the economics of major sports have become, announcing a $909-million write-down stemming from its losses on baseball, football and stock-car racing.

Even with Tuesday's bright spots, Fox concedes it is hardly out of the woods in terms of its prime-time schedule. The failure of "Girls Club" and poor ratings for an expensive new sci-fi series, "Firefly," leave significant holes to fill, and a new comedy, "The Grubbs," has already been shelved. (The network will repeat "24" on Monday in place of "Girls Club," providing another chance for viewers to sample the show prior to the second telecast.)

Tuesday's box score, meanwhile, is bad news for those fans who complained about the promotional onslaught they endured during games, which again included computer-inserted ads in the background for Fox shows. Some suggested that the network was, in effect, mistreating visitors who wouldn't otherwise watch Fox.

Apparently, all those promos did help build interest in "24." And given how hard it has become to get noticed over the roar of the cable crowd, networks will try to cash in on whatever leadoff hitters they can find.

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