World Series Preview: Inside Fox’s October Showcase

There’s joy in Mudville as baseball continues to deliver

When Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander takes the hill tonight in the opening game of the 108th edition of the World Series, he’ll be stepping into history.

While this marks the 11th trip to the Fall Classic for the Tigers and the 19th appearance for the San Francisco Giants—14 of which were earned under the club’s original New York designation—these clubs have never met in the postseason.

Fox is confident that the novelty of a Tigers-Giants showdown and a Detroit roster that includes the first Triple Crown winner since 1967 (Miguel Cabrera) and the best pitcher in baseball (Verlander) should be reason enough for fans to tune in. And while the ratings will never again match their Carter-era heyday, the World Series remains one of television’s most consequential events.

According to Nielsen prime-time ratings data for the fourth quarter of 2011, last year’s World Series (Rangers-Cardinals) ranked second among men 18-49—only CBS’s The Big Bang Theory put up bigger numbers in the demo—and eighth with the adults 18-49 set. Fox’s deliveries got a real shot in the arm when the Series returned to Busch Stadium for Game 6, as 21.1 million viewers tuned in; moreover, the network averaged a 6.5 rating in the dollar demo.

David Freese’s walkoff homer in the 11th sent the Series to the limit and fans responded accordingly. Game 7 drew 25.4 million viewers and notched a 7.4 in the demo, making it the highest-rated MLB broadcast since Game 4 of the 2004 Series. 

With those two final nailbiters, Fox averaged a 4.8 in the dollar demo and a 10.0 household rating. If the Rangers had managed to clinch in five games, the 8.4 average household rating still would have satisfied Fox’s ratings guarantees.

It goes without saying that Fox’s deliveries are largely a function of duration, although history sometimes does some of the heavy lifting. In 2004, the Boston Red Sox dispelled the 86-year-old Curse of the Bambino, beating the Cards in straight sets in front of the largest baseball audience in 10 years. The four-game blowout averaged 25.4 million viewers, peaking at 28.8 million in the deciding contest.

Six of the 14 World Series broadcast by Fox have gone at least six games; of these, three were decided in seven.

The further the Tigers and Giants burrow into October, the more advertising dollars Fox will generate. Last season’s seven-game capper raked in $268.8 million in revenue, per Kantar Media; by contrast, the five-game Giants-Rangers set in 2010 generated just $191.2 million. All things being equal, each game beyond the fifth frame can bring in an additional $40 million in sponsor dough.  

The stakes are higher still this fall, as Fox is commanding as much as $500,000 per 30-second spot. All told, a seven-game Tigers-Giants tilt could bring in as much as $280.9 million in ad sales revenue.

Critics are quick to harp on baseball’s declining fortunes, noting that ratings for the Fall Classic have been in general decline for the last several years. And while it’s true that deliveries are on a downward slide, baseball essentially holds a mirror up to the broadcast marketplace at large.

For example, the last time NBC hosted the World Series, Bill Clinton had recently sloughed off impeachment and was serving out the remainder of his second term. In 1999, the Peacock averaged 23.7 million viewers with its four-game Yankees-Braves set. That same year, the network aired six of TV’s top 10 shows, including the No. 1 drama series, E.R. (24.9 million/12.0 rating) and the No. 1 comedy, Friends (21 million/10.6).

Compare those numbers with today’s fragmented landscape, where the fall’s top-rated TV show is on cable (AMC’s The Walking Dead) and a 1.5 in the demo is good enough for a back-nine order. (You’d have to go back nine seasons to find a scripted series that delivered a 10.0 in the dollar demo—Season 1 of ABC’s Desperate Housewives averaged a 10.4.)

Given how low the broadcast bar has been set—NBC won Week 4 of the 2012-12 season with a 2.6 in the demo, the sort of number that would trigger a defenestration or two in the era of Must-See TV—the World Series actually looks like a good bet for media buyers. “Every fall, we get 20 hours of a top 10 hit, which works out to basically an entire season of a top-rated show,” says Mike Mulvihill, svp of programming and research for Fox Sports. “As a baseline, that’s a really good place to be.”

Mulvihill allows that the absence of a powerhouse franchise like the Yankees or Red Sox takes some of the padding out of the ratings projections, before adding that San Francisco and Detroit aren’t exactly one-horse towns.

“San Francisco is the No. 6 DMA and Detroit is No. 11,” Mulvihill says. “These are big, dynamic markets.”

Still, so much depends on an extended run. Two years ago, when the Giants met the Texas Rangers—Arlington is in the No. 5 Dallas-Fort Worth DMA—Fox posted the second-lowest deliveries in Series history. That matchup lasted just five games.

Likewise, the rain-soaked Phillies-Rays slog in 2008 was hampered by everything from meteorological delays, smaller DMAs and a five-game run. When the sun set on that Series, Fox had averaged just 13.6 million viewers.

One factor that tends to get overlooked when crunching the ratings numbers is the value of the viewer. Per Nielsen, the median income of World Series viewers last year was $61,000, which is 18 percent above the total U.S. average ($50,054). The bank statements are even stronger when the target demo is broken out; median income for the men 18-49 who tuned in to the 2011 Fall Classic was $70,100.

“There’s a lot to like in the World Series audience,” Mulvihill says. “Upper-income males are notoriously hard to reach because they don’t watch nearly as much TV. And when you have a property that reaches this kind of scale and 97 percent of the audience is live? That’s a big advantage.”

As much as baseball is a graying sport (the median age of the 2011 World Series was 52.5 years), the trend is of a piece with the aging broadcast audience. That said, Fox manages to hold its own among the younger male demos. When compared to the rest of the prime-time landscape, the 2011 World Series ranked No. 3 among men 18-34 (5.2) and male teens (3.0) and took fourth among men in their 20s.

“For 40 years people have been saying, ‘we’re losing the kids, we’re losing the kids,’ but the historical numbers tell a different story,” Mulvihill says. “Kids grow into baseball. Twenty years ago, the Series was ranked 26th among boys 2-11. Now they’re all grown up and our ratings for men in the 21-29 range were the fourth highest on TV.”

While Mulvihill didn’t hazard a guess as to how long this year’s World Series would endure, Vegas betting lines are leaning heavily on a Tigers win in six. The grail, of course, is a winner-take-all Game 7, which in this case would take place on the night after Halloween.

“For the most part, ratings for Games 1 through 6 tend to be very consistent. A lot of the same fans are tuning in night after night,” Mulvihill says. “But if you’re lucky enough to catch a Game 7, that changes everything. It becomes a spectacle, a major event—and even casual fans want to be a part of it.” 

Fox’ coverage of the 2012 World Series starts tonight at 8 p.m. EDT, as Verlander (17-8) squares off against the resurgent Giants southpaw Barry Zito (15-8).