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Fox Feeling Like Cub, Red Sox Faithful

October 18, 2003|Meg James | Times Staff Writer

Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs fans aren't the only ones feeling dazed and dejected. Fox Broadcasting Co.'s executives also are a little bummed after watching their dream match-up strike out.

Fox had been rooting for the underdog teams to advance to the World Series, which begins tonight. They figured a sensational struggle between two storied and snakebit franchises would generate worldwide interest, gigantic ratings and a windfall potentially worth tens of millions of dollars.

Instead, the upstart Florida Marlins beat the Chicago Cubs to earn a series berth. They will face the New York Yankees, who squeaked past the Red Sox in an 11-inning thriller Thursday night that delivered monstrous ratings.

Now the question is whether the country will give Fox's World Series broadcasts a big Bronx cheer.

"There's no real sentimental favorite," said Larry Gerbrandt, chief operating officer of Kagan World Media. "It's going to be tough for the World Series to match the drama of the league championships."

Hogwash, said Fox Sports Chairman David Hill.

"The games are going to be compelling," he said Friday. "And we've already had a great run."

Indeed, ratings for the National League and American League pennant series were up 45% over last year. Thursday's pivotal game between the Red Sox and Yankees reeled in an average of 27.5 million viewers, becoming the highest-rated league championship game in 12 years.

In addition, the News Corp.-owned network grabbed $50 million more than anticipated in advertising revenue because both the Red Sox-Yankees and Cubs-Marlins series went seven games.

"This is what we hoped for when we got the baseball contract," Hill said. "Finally our strategy to take baseball has been proven correct."

The Fox Sports division has endured plenty of howls, from fellow Fox executives and on Wall Street, over its money-losing six-year Major League Baseball contract. Fox had to write down $225 million in baseball losses last year, and Fox entertainment executives have been forced to pull new shows in October to make way for baseball.

That has put the network at a disadvantage by allowing rival networks to get traction for their new shows.

But not this year. "Baseball totally threw the TV marketplace into turmoil," Hill said. "The opposing networks have been squandering millions of dollars promoting their new shows when all eyes have been on baseball."

Sure enough, rival NBC ripped new episodes off the schedule this week, replacing them with re-runs. "Baseball has been brutal," said Kevin Reilly, NBC prime-time development president. "We figured, we're just going to wave the white flag."

CBS also ran repeats Thursday, except for "Survivor."

Baseball has given Fox something else to crow about. For the first time in its 17-year history, it can lay claim to first place for the season among viewers 18 to 49, the age range that advertisers pay the most to reach.

"These games have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that sports is the ultimate reality show," Hill said. "And hope springs eternal. Who's to say that we won't be in the exact same position next year?"

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