Fox prepping pinch-hitters for strikeout

Walkout would mean normal launch times for new shows

Of course, the Fox Network would hate to lose the World Series if baseball players, currently embroiled in protracted talks with the owners, go on strike later this season.

Fox will not get hurt financially from a walkout — the network’s license fee covers only games that are actually played. But a work stoppage could seriously cut into fans’ already waning love affair with what was once the national pasttime and the Fall Classic provided a powerful promo platform for the nets’ new series last year.

And there would be an upside. Fox would be able to face off directly with its broadcast competitors by slotting its entertainment schedule in September and October. The Fox Network has a six-year, $2.5 billion deal with Major League Baseball that stretches out to 2006.

Last fall, Fox got off to a slow start in the primetime ratings because for the first time it was the sole broadcast network running postseason games of Major League Baseball. In previous year, Fox and NBC shared the playoffs and World Series, so Fox could introduce the bulk of its primetime series in the normal fall rotation.

A Fox spokesman would say only, “We have a number of different scenarios for our fall schedule, both with baseball and without it.”

But Fox plans to build in plenty of lead time to the start of production of both new and returning fall series, so fresh episodes will be available in September and October if the players are walking a picket line.

But even with enough series episodes available as substitutes for vanishing primetime baseball games, “A baseball strike would not be good for Fox,” said Garnett Losak, VP and director of programming for Petry Media Corp., a rep firm that advises network-affiliated TV stations on program strategy. “The World Series is a tremendous promotional platform for Fox’s TV series, particularly the ones that appeal to a male audience.”

Steve Sternberg, senior VP and director of audience analysis for Magna Global, said, “Any benefit Fox would get from having fewer delayed premieres of its TV series would be offset by the disruption the strike would cause to baseball in future years.”

Sternberg pointed out, “It took baseball many years to recover from the previous strike.” That strike, in 1994, eliminated the World Series — the first time the Fall Classic had not taken place since 1904.

“All these threats of a strike are doing serious harm to baseball’s history and tradition,” said David Carter, a principal in the Los Angeles-based Sports Business Group. “The fans are sick of it.”

An ESPN spokeswoman declined to comment on the network’s MLB contract. But ESPN’s six-year, $851 million deal with MLB comes to only a third of Fox’s license fee. And in post-season, ESPN gets only a portion of the first-round playoff games, funneling them to its sister network ABC Family, which will get up to 14 games.

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