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Fox juggles double-play ball

It's a springboard, sure, but the Fall Classic plays havoc with net's sked

The intersection of sports and entertainment hits hard at Fox, where the net’s Major League Baseball package comes right in the middle of TV’s fall primetime rollout.

Come every October, Fox televises the National and American League playoffs and the World Series — all in keeping with a six-year, $2.5 billion broadcast agreement with MLB that expires in 2006.

At the same time, its broadcast rivals are premiering fall series, hoping to gain traction with auds looking for the hot new show.

For Fox decision makers, the scheduling collision only further complicates the complex promotional-value equation all the big networks face when signing expensive broadcast-rights deals for sports.

David Hill, chairman of Fox Sports’ TV Group — who also ran the network’s entertainment division from 1997-99 — has to deal with the fact that Fox’s October baseball commitment is both a blessing and curse.

The downside: America’s pastime is past its prime and mostly attracts older auds that don’t make up the usual Fox demo. .

A good example of this occurred during Fox’s broadcast of the 2001 American League Playoffs, which featured a competitive series pitting baseball’s best draw, the New York Yankees, against the talented, young Oakland Athletics.

The series produced baseball’s largest early playoff-round ratings since MLB expanded its post-season format five years earlier. Still, a mid-October “Monday Night Football” contest on ABC featuring the both-winless Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins beat out Fox’s Yankee-A’s coverage 14.7 million viewers to 11.7 million.

Baseball’s older skew was evident in the demo breakdown. Football won out over the national pastime by 74% in teens and by 43% in adults 18-34 but by only 12% in viewers 50-plus.

Meanwhile, baseball coverage forces Fox to delay new programming until November and allows other nets to establish hits. If Fox skeins start in September, and then have to be pre-empted in October because of baseball, all momentum is lost.

Also, if NBC or CBS are quick out of the gate with their new skeins on Friday at 8 p.m., for example, then Fox might have a hard time finding enough viewers to check out “Wanda at Large,” which is coming off a successful mid-season premiere.

On the other hand: “The blessing argument is that the playoffs and World Series will have massive eyeballs,” Hill says. “If you’re lucky and have a game seven or two teams with lots of interest, you’ll have more eyeballs than anywhere else and take away from the other networks.

“With these (viewers), your marketing schedule becomes very different. You don’t have to spend off-channel money because people are watching your network that normally might not watch.”

Certainly, a thrilling World Series can bring in viewers that aren’t even big sports fans.

Of course, it always helps if big-market teams are involved, particularly the Yankees. The seventh game of the 2001 World Series between the Yankees and the Arizona Diamondbacks drew 39.1 million viewers and the series as a whole averaged 24.5 million.

By comparison, last year’s Anaheim Angels-San Francisco Giants contest averaged 19.3 million.

“The beauty of what happens for the big games or big series is that you just don’t get the purists,” Hill says. “It becomes a national event.”

John Rash, senior VP and director of broadcast negotiations at media buying agency Campbell Mithun, says baseball is a net positive for two reasons.

“It provides a unique and well-timed promotional platform, assuming the program being previewed has audience compatibility with baseball,” Rash explains. “Secondly, it represents a few weeks where Fox can run little original programming, saving firstrun episodes for key sweeps and ratings periods.”

The drama “24” is one good example of a series that Fox successfully promoted through its baseball coverage. The Kiefer Sutherland skein premiered Nov. 6, 2001, about a week after the World Series concluded.

That first episode averaged 11.6 million viewers, and “24” is entering season No. 3 as one of Fox’s hottest shows.

And Fox was the first network to create a virtual, CGI billboard behind home plate, promoting series from “Bernie Mac” to “The Simpsons.”

After Bart’s animated mug was digitally plastered behind home plate during the World Series, last year’s first episode of “The Simpsons” was the long-running skein’s highest rated season premiere of the past five years.

Fox will undoubtedly use its baseball coverage to promote its fall-premiering Norm MacDonald comedy “A Minute With Stan Hooper” and the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced drama “Skin,” among other new series.

Such promotion is no guarantee of success: David E. Kelley’s “Girls Club” failed to catch on last season despite its ample World Series exposure. Ditto the Jay Mohr-starring comedy “Action” in 1999.

And whether this nonstop promotion is good or bad for the game is subject to debate, but the technology allows Fox to get its $417 million a season worth.

“The disruption in their primetime lineup is a concern but obviously something they factored in when they bought the contract,” says David Carter, author of “On the Ball” and a principal in the L.A.-based Sports Business Group.

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