Classic fall for Series ratings

Slow pitch for Detroit vs. St. Louis

Fewer and fewer people are watching the World Series on television — the four lowest-rated Series took place in the last six years — and Fox Sports execs are fingering their prayer beads as they contemplate the 2006 edition between the Detroit Tigers and the St. Louis Cardinals.

“To put it mildly, Detroit vs. St. Louis is not the ideal matchup,” said Mike Trager, the sports consultant and former head of Clear Channel TV. “These are not marquee teams.”

Game 1 of the series between the Cardinals and Tigers on Saturday settled for an 8.6 household rating/15 share in Nielsen’s metered-market overnights, a sharp 25% drop from the 11.4/19 for the opener of the Chicago White Sox-Houston Astros matchup in 2005.

Last year’s Game 1 translated into a national rating/share of 4.6/15 in adults 18-49 and 15 million viewers overall, and this year’s contest is projected to come in with about a 3.7 in the demo and 12.5 million viewers. Despite the dropoff, Fox won the night easily.

Going into the postseason earlier this month, the handicappers said Fox would do best if the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers survived the playoffs and League Championships to meet in the Series. A New York Mets-Oakland A’s faceoff also would have stirred fan interest.

But Ed Goren, the gravel-voiced president of Fox Sports, said, “Studying the recent ratings of the World Series doesn’t scare me. What terrifies me is the prospect of a four-game sweep. Volume is what I want.”

If the Cardinals have to go back to Detroit for a sixth World Series game, “We’ll do fine,” Goren said.

Fox is harvesting about $380,000 for a 30-second spot, he continued, and in a game with lots of pitching changes, Fox will rack up more than 80 spots to sell to national advertisers.

But Bob Gutkowski, another sports consultant and former president of Madison Square Garden, said Fox will “end up tens of millions of dollars in the red” if the Series wraps up in four or five games.

Fox is in the last year of its current contract. Net has carried the World Series since 1996.

A short series this year would give Goren acid reflux, but one season is not the be-all-end-all because he signed a seven-year contract with Major League Baseball for the World Series, half of the League Championship Series and a package of regular-season Saturday-afternoon games. Over the course of the next seven years, Goren said, there’ll be a six- or seven-game Series to balance the scales for every four- or five-game Series.

As part of that $1.8 billion deal, which kicks off next season, Goren said MLB has agreed in the contract to give Fox more commercial time in the games, forcing the players to stay in the dugout a little longer between half-innings.

Another concession by MLB allows Fox to start the World Series on Tuesday, not Saturday, from 2007 through 2013. That’s a big deal because Saturday is the worst night of the week for TV viewing. This year, if there’s a sixth game, it will end up on Saturday. Next year, Fox will be stuck with only one Saturday, for the fourth game. A sixth game, if necessary, takes place on Tuesday.

But audience falloff is glaringly evident even when there’s a down-to-the-wire seventh game like the Thursday-night Cardinals LCS victory over the Mets. The game drew 16.5 million total viewers and was the most-watched game of the 2006 postseason, but its rating was still 17% lower than the last comparable seventh LCS game, the Houston-St. Louis contest in 2004. To chalk up blockbuster ratings, a World Series needs to pull in casual viewers, Trager said. “But casual viewers,” he added, “need superstars and dramatic stories.” Those may be in short supply this year.

(Rick Kissell in Hollywood contributed to this report.)

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