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Fox cashes in on McGwire mania

Ratings sack 'Monday Night'

St. Louis slugger Mark McGwire made the Fox network look smart Tuesday for pre-empting the season premiere of “King of the Hill” and the debut of the sitcom “Costello.”

He blasted the 62nd home run of the season on the first pitch of his second at bat against the Chicago Cubs, breaking the all-time major-league record set by Roger Maris of the Yankees in 1961.

The homer capped a run of McGwire-mania for Fox, which set records with a pair of nationally broadcast games featuring the Cardinals’ homer-hitting wonder over the weekend.

On Sunday, Fox notched a 6.6 overnight rating with coverage of a late afternoon Cards-Reds game – the highest-rated regular season afternoon baseball game in Fox history. The game, which was pre-empted in several major markets for NFL coverage, was also Fox’s first-ever national Sunday afternoon baseball broadcast.

On Saturday, Fox’s regular game of the week – another Cards game, natch – earned a 5.4/15 in the overnights, well above the previous record number for the franchise (4.8/13).

Figures for Monday and Tuesday’s Cards-Cubs matchups, which featured a head-to-head between McGwire and Chicago slugger Sammy Sosa, are expected to be released today. They’re sure to be hefty, given the media ballyhoo surrounding McGwire’s quest for the record.

McGwire’s record-shattering homer was so big that ABC and CBS broke into regularly scheduled primetime programming on the East Coast to bring viewers replays (complete with the Fox/Major League Baseball bug) of the shot. NBC broke into its programming with a 30-second spot nearly 10 minutes later than the other nets.

Not all was hunky-dory in the world of broadcast sports, however.

ABC’s “Monday Night Football” is off to what’s apparently its worst ratings start ever – despite a blizzard of hype surrounding the pigskin franchise’s new early start time.

Monday’s showdown between the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots earned a 14.6 rating/23 share from 8:21-11:21 p.m. in Nielsen’s 40-city overnight sample, according to ratings data released Tuesday.

That’s down 13% from last year’s “MNF” season opener, which scored a 16.7/27 overnight average and a 15.0/26 national rating – the latter number representing the lowest-rated “MNF” season opener in the history of the franchise.

Barring an unexpected uptick when national numbers are released today, Monday’s Broncos-Patriots matchup is on track to supplant last year’s game as the lowest-rated “MNF” kickoff in the 29-season history of the program.

Monday’s numbers were no doubt hurt by the fact that it was Labor Day and the absence of an NFC team, marking the first time “MNF” has kicked off a new season with two AFC teams since 1981. AFC teams traditionally attract fewer viewers than NFC squads.

Despite the lower overall number for Monday’s football coverage, the earlier start time did have the expected benefit of upping ABC’s 8-9 p.m. average and its 8-11 p.m. primetime tally.

The combination of a 21-minute pregame show and the first 39 minutes of the game helped the Alphabet web average a 13.2/20 from 8-9 p.m. Monday, up significantly from the 7.2/12 national number ABC notched in the time slot a year ago. Overall from 8-11 p.m., ABC averaged a 14.2, up 3% from the 13.8 overnight average ABC scored a year ago.

Meanwhile, the NFL returned to CBS in a big way Sunday, with the Eye web actually producing better Nielsen numbers than NBC’s AFC season kickoff a year ago.

A nationally televised late afternoon thriller featuring the 49ers and the Jets racked up an impressive 12.5 rating from 4:15-7:45 p.m. – an 18% gain from NBC’s late game broadcast a year ago. Earlier regional coverage averaged a 7.4 rating on CBS, an uptick of 4% from last year.

The return of CBS’ “The NFL Today” pregame show also did well, averaging a 3.1/9 vs. Fox’s pregame party, which turned in a 3.7/11.

Football didn’t seem to affect CBS’ Sunday primetime numbers much in either direction.

A 45-minute overrun of the Jets-49ers game averaged a solid 13.6/29 from 7 to 7:45 p.m., with delayed editions of “60 Minutes” (11.1/22) and “Touched by an Angel” (8.9/16) performing at roughly year-ago levels. The CBS Sunday movie, “It Could Happen to You” – a last-minute sub for “Final Disaster,” an air disaster yarn pulled in the wake of the Swissair jet crash – averaged an 8.5/16 from 9:45-11:45 p.m., about the same as last year’s CBS Sunday film.

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