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October 17, 2006

The Ledger Domain

Ratings Time

by Maury Brown

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If you've got the blahs watching the 2006 postseason, you're not alone if you use television ratings as a barometer. Yes, maybe you or I would sit transfixed watching the Devil Rays and Pirates in the World Series if they made it, but for the average fan, the ratings numbers indicate where their interests lie. Why is this important to the rest of us? Because, it impacts what Fox does, or does not do, with telecasts in the future. For those that say, "Ratings don't matter," in this case, they do, to all of us.

Last year's postseason ratings weren't as good as the year prior, but it would have been hard to match 2004, what with the Red Sox winning the World Series after 85 years after coming back against the Yankees in the ALCS. A drop in viewers from that for the 2005 postseason had to be expected.

Unfortunately, this postseason has seen numbers even more uniformly down, pretty much across the board, and this time you can't place the blame on the White Sox not having the same pull the Red Sox did. There are some other reasons why the drop is occurring, which I'll get to in a bit, but all that aside--when Dancing with the Stars beats out the Game One of the ALDS, you have to say that the 2006 postseason isn't going to go down in history as "Must See TV."

When the Tigers won Game One of the ALCS against A's, the game pulled in a 2.8 rating and an 8 share with adults aged 18-49, with 8.59 million viewers overall. The rating was down 22% in that demographic from last year's Game One of the ALCS between the White Sox and Angels, which pulled a 3.6 rating and a 10 share. To explain, ratings are based on the Nielsen Television Ratings statistics. A single national ratings point represents 1%, or 1,102,000 households for the 2005-06 seasons. Share is the percentage of television sets in use tuned to a specific program. These numbers are usually reported as ratings points and share.

I mentioned that viewer appetite was down pretty much across the board, meaning that not all games were down--just most of them. As an example, the decisive Game Four between the Padres and the Cardinals in the NLDS, which aired in the 8pm ET Sunday slot, garnered a 5.4/8 overnight Nielsen rating, which was down 4% from a 9.7/15 for the comparable Angels-Yankees ALDS Game Four in 2005. However, the Mets-Dodgers NLDS Game Three, which was also a decisive game, drew a 5.3/10. This was up 4% from the comparable Braves-Astros Game Four last year, which drew a 5.1/9.

So, this is good news, right? Well, yes and no. The Mets and Dodgers play in vastly larger markets than the Astros and Braves do. If you recall last year's NLDS Game Four, it arguably may well go down as one of the most dramatic Division Series games of all time, as it went a staggering 18 innings, saw Roger Clemens pitch three innings in relief (something he had only done once prior in his career), and saw not one but two grand slams. It ended on game-winning home run by Chris Burke. That bodes well for the NLDS ratings this year: it went up against a game for the ages.

How about the ALDS? Plenty of pull with the Yankees in the mix (as always), right? Well, not so much. The Yankees-Tigers ALDS Game Three, which ran from 8:00-11:15pm ET, earned a 4.9, down 12.5% from a 5.6 for the Angels-Yankees ALDS Game Three last year. Other numbers from the Division Series which didn't have like games to compare to:

Day       Time Slot       Station   Teams              Game          Ratings
Saturday  1:00-4:15pm ET  ESPN2     Padres-Cardinals  NLDS Game 3     1.9
Friday    4:00-7:15pm ET  ESPN      Twins-A's         ALDS Game 3     2.5

I'll throw in a gratuitous NFL stat for good measure:

Saturday's finale of the Tigers-Yankees series: 4.4.
National rating for the Eagles-Cowboys the next afternoon: 13.9.

That's a difference of 10.5 million homes, although it should be noted that baseball was up against college football--which underscores the problem with going up against football anytime, anywhere.

The League Championship Series was a mixed bag as well. On Friday, the overall ratings for Fox showed them coming in third in the ratings with an approximate 8.32 million viewers and a 2.5/8 among adults in prime time. The Cardinals-Mets Game Two, which ran from 8:15 p.m.-12:00 a.m. ET, earned a 7.2/13 on Fox, down 6.5% from a 7.7/13 for White Sox-Angels Game Three last year. The A's-Tigers Game Three on Fox which had a 4:30-7:30 p.m. ET timeslot earned a 4.2/10; there was no game in the similar time slot last year. Saturday saw the Mets-Cardinals Game Three, which was down 13.8% from a 6.5/11 for White Sox-Angels Game Four last year.

On the flip side, the deciding Game Four for the A's and Tigers in the ALCS was up 34.1% from the year prior. The game which started at 4:30pm ET pulled a 5.9/13, while last year's Cardinals-Astros Game Three drew a 4.4/9. Unfortunately, it wasn't part of a general improvement: Sunday's games saw a 6.4/10 overnight rating for Mets-Cardinals NLCS Game Four, which aired from 8:30-11:30pm ET. That was down 9.7% from a 9.1/14 for the decisive White Sox-Angels Game Five last year.

A Look Deeper into the Numbers

The numbers don't tell the whole story of why the ratings are down. I mentioned the 18-inning classic between the Braves and the Astros in last year's NLDS as one reason, but there were other factors as well.

For one, the way that the postseason clubs wound up last year you had nearly every corner of the US covered. The Astros and Braves provided entries from the southern part of the country. The Midwest gave us the White Sox and Cardinals, and you had the Angels and Padres representing the West. And of course you had the East Coast covered by the Red Sox and Yankees, who are perennial favorites from coast to coast, and who lift ratings every time they're in the postseason. This alignment made for a truly national viewing audience.

In contrast, what has worked against ratings this year has been a number of factors. First, we've already had three rainouts in the postseason, with the Mets involved in two. MLB claiming that they needed to bump the start time for Game Three of the ALCS in Detroit due to a chance of snow certainly hasn't helped. This has caused Fox to juggle the schedule, and that's added an element of unpredictability for the viewing audience.

Let's add in the games themselves. The Twins get swept by the A's in the first round, as did the Dodgers by the Mets. The Yankees get shown the door in the first round by the Tigers in four games; ditto for the Padres by the Cardinals. The Tigers sweep the A's in the ALCS, which leaves the NLCS as the only potential source of drama. At least it may actually have a chance of going the distance and commanding people's attention--if there aren't more rainouts. MLB looks for any series to go the distance for the same reason that Fox execs do: it fills advertising space and has MLB front and center almost daily. The league and the network haven't had much luck with that this year.

In other words, "compelling" is not a word that comes to mind in describing the postseason so far this year. Fox has got to be glad that next year sees part of the postseason going to TBS.

Fox has to be praying for the Mets to win the NLCS. They need the largest market in the US in the postseason, even if the team getting in doesn't wear pinstripes. Having a Cardinals/Tigers World Series would presumably lower interest due to the close regional alignment of the clubs. If ratings were exceptionally low for the Subway Series in 2000 (at the time it was the lowest-rated World Series ever, with the games averaging a 12.4 national rating and 21 share), you can wonder what might happen with two pretty small television markets providing the World Series matchup, with both from the same region. In Fox headquarters, no doubt the halls are echoing with the sound of Alka-Seltzer.

Maury Brown is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Maury's other articles. You can contact Maury by clicking here

Related Content:  ALCS,  2000 ALDS,  Postseason

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