TV ratings slip, but Series still keeps grip

Baseball

World Series: Game 4

October 27, 2005|By CHILDS WALKER | CHILDS WALKER,SUN REPORTER

If a classic World Series game is played in Houston but no one in New York is watching, does that mean it wasn't really a classic?

It's a question hanging in the air as the Houston Astros vs. Chicago White Sox - a series that features tight games, fresh storylines and two of the country's largest cities - draws some of the poorest television ratings in the history of the Fall Classic.

"You've got terrific teams, you've got great players, great stories, but it's just not enough to capture that national interest," said Bob Gutkowski, a sports television consultant and former president of Madison Square Garden.

That said, television experts argue the series remains a desirable property because it's a guaranteed draw in an increasingly fragmented television landscape.

"Just because it's not generating the ratings it used to doesn't mean it's not generating great ratings in the current climate," said Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports marketing consultant.

"I don't think there's real concern at either Fox or Major League Baseball," said Neal Pilson, a former president of CBS Sports and now a consultant to the TV industry. "You can't discuss the future of baseball based on the ratings for one World Series. The ratings don't necessarily reflect the value of the property."

The first two games averaged a 10.3 rating and 16 million viewers, slightly below the 10.7 average earned by the same games in the 2002 Anaheim Angels-San Francisco Giants series, the lowest-rated in history, and 30 percent below the average for last year's Boston Red Sox-St. Louis Cardinals series.

Game 1 was the least-watched World Series game since a 1971 contest between the Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates that was played on a Thursday afternoon.

The depressed numbers have some pundits saying that a World Series without the New York Yankees or Red Sox is doomed. Television columnist Michael Hiestand of USA Today said the rating "raises questions about the breadth of Major League Baseball's national TV appeal."

That may be an overstatement, marketing experts said, but the Yankees, Red Sox, Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers have familiar histories for which casual fans have an affinity.

"Neither Houston nor Chicago has any meaningful national following," Ganis said. "And in baseball, there are only a few clubs that do."

Joe Sheehan, a columnist for Baseballprospectus.com, said the ratings reflect a series without well-tread stories like the "Curse of the Bambino" or big stars like Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter.

"You hook the casual fans with stories that don't have a lot to do with baseball," he said. "All the stories this year are baseball stories."

Given those factors, Fox spokesman Lou D'Ermilio said any panic about the ratings is premature.

"If you simply compare the numbers to last year, then the decline is a little more than we expected," he said. "But the buzz around the Red Sox last year was a buzz that transcended the sports pages. It drew in non-traditional television viewers."

Baseball officials are sensitive to suggestions that the lower ratings indicate any broader dip in popularity. They note that the league has set overall attendance records two years in a row, that regional cable ratings remain strong and that the Series still draws larger audiences than the NBA Finals and NASCAR and performs well in its time slots.

"The good news for us is that the World Series continues to beat the competition," said Chris Tully, senior vice president for broadcasting for Major League Baseball.

The broader reality, television experts agree, is that few entertainment programs can match the best ratings of 20 and 30 years ago. People simply have too many choices.

"I used to sell television at NBC in the '70s, and our absolute lowest-rated program would be among the highest-rated today," Gutkowski said. "It just gets harder and harder to drive a big number."

Audiences are more fickle, he added, and if a storyline doesn't capture them right off, they're lost.

"If we're comparing sports programming today to 20-30 years ago, it's just not an apples-to-apples comparison," D'Ermilio said.

Television and marketing experts agree that the World Series remains a valuable property because it's one of the few events that guarantees a sizable audience no matter who's playing.

"I still think it's a cache event," Gutkowski said. "It always will be, though you might have your ups and downs from year to year. This time of year, it's still as good a product as you're going to get."

On the surface, this Series seems to have plenty going for it.

The White Sox are trying to end an 88-year championship drought, longer than the one the Red Sox ended to so much acclaim last year. And for history buffs, the 1919 Black Sox scandal seems a more sordid back story than the simple sale of Babe Ruth.

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