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Let's play seven: Fox hopes to stretch out World Series
By Ted Cox | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 10/23/200 2:25 PM

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The Fox network doesn't care who wins the World Series. It just wants it to go long, preferably six or seven games.

Fox has been taking a bath in recent years. The White Sox and Boston Red Sox swept in 2005 and 2007, respectively, and that was sandwiched around a five-game World Series in 2006, when the Detroit Tigers managed to win just one game against the St. Louis Cardinals when their pitchers weren't throwing the ball all over the lot.

"No matter what the numbers end up being, historically the Series outperforms all fall television," said Fox Sports president Ed Goren on a media conference call earlier this week.

Yet it's not just the lost nights of top-rated sports programming Fox would miss with another sweep or near-sweep; it's the ability to promote the players on two largely unknown rosters and develop story lines over the course of the games.

"It's water-cooler talk," Goren said. "These things build."

The numbers thus far this fall bear that out. Fox pulled barely 8 million viewers nationally for the fifth and final game of the NLCS in which the Philadelphia Phillies eliminated the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Admittedly, that was up against the third and final presidential debate, but it's not like Fox was lighting up the Nielsen ratings before that.

By contrast, even cable TBS attracted 13.4 million viewers to the deciding seventh game of the ALCS - the largest cable audience ever for a baseball game, topping the 1998 ESPN game in which the Cards' Mark McGwire hit his 61st home run against the Cubs and Sammy Sosa.

Without that building momentum over an extended series, Fox is almost certainly looking at a record-low-rated World Series. Tampa Bay is a small market, and while Philadelphia is a major market, it isn't Chicago or Los Angeles, and the Phillies don't generate the marquee appeal, even among baseball aficionados, that the BoSox do.

Wednesday's opener pulled but a 9.2 national Nielsen in overnight ratings released Thursday, for a 15 percent share of the audience and 14.6 million viewers, but even that was down significantly from the 10.5/18 and 16.9 million viewers of last year's opener between the BoSox and Colorado Rockies, although up from the 8/15 opener of 2006, which drew 12.8 million.

So the question as the Series began was whether Fox would strain to make up for the lack of general interest. It's worth noting that even on that conference call, play-by-play man Joe Buck had a problem mustering much excitement for the matchup, saying, "It's a great opportunity to showcase one of the best young teams" in the Rays. "The real baseball fans will get a lot of enjoyment out of watching guys who are not household names."

The implication was, for less intense baseball fans, the interest was not so much. And it should also be noted that the call barely ran a half-hour before all questions petered out - among fans as intensely interested (at least in theory) as sports media writers. That's the sort of apathy Fox is fighting as the Series shifts to Philadelphia over the weekend.

At least Fox was prevented from using its stupid "Diamond-Cam" inserted into the field in Tampa, which is the first and probably only good thing that can be said about artificial turf.

To paraphrase Dick Allen, if a horse can't eat it, I don't want to play on it, but if it can't have a camera inserted into it either, it ain't all bad.

Otherwise, if anything, the coverage was lackluster. Fox never did find a definitive replay on the near-pickoff of Shane Victorino in the second inning. And color analyst Tim McCarver was typically obtuse. It was as if even Fox had trouble managing much passion for the matchup.

"I've said this year in and year out," Goren reminded. "It's not so much the matchups - and I think this is a wonderful matchup - as the number of games played in the Series or volume.

"When I look at this matchup it takes me back to 1997, the Marlins, who nobody knew, against the Cleveland Indians. That World Series averaged a 16.7 rating. Game 7 of the Series did a 24.5 rating.

"That's what I mean about volume. These kids are the future of baseball. If we do our job and have exciting games, then we are going to do just fine."

And if not?

In the air

Remotely interesting: WGN Channel 9 sports executive producer Bob Vorwald is already making contingency plans should Bob Brenly be hired to manage the Milwaukee Brewers. The Cubs would have to scurry to find a color analyst to team with Len Kasper on Channel 9, WCIU Channel 26 and Comcast SportsNet Chicago. And no, Steve Stone, who just signed a six-year deal with the White Sox, would not be an option. (Need I mention Dave Otto again?) Kasper and Brenly won a local Emmy Award this week for their play-by-play. Comcast SportsNet Chicago won four overall, and Channel 9 and Vorwald won one for the "Cubs Forever" historical overview.

WPWR Channel 50 airs the IHSA football playoff pairings at 8 p.m. Sunday. ... CSNC carries the Drsicoll Catholic-Montini Catholic showdown at noon Saturday.

End of the dial: Chuck Swirsky makes his regular-season debut as the Bulls' play-by-play man alongside Bill Wennington in the opener against Milwaukee on WMVP 1000-AM at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. Channel 9 airs the TV coverage with Neil Funk and Stacey King on the call.

XM satellite radio is devoting four channels to the World Series. Channel 176 has the Rays' call, 183 has the Phillies', 174 has it in Spanish and 189 has the national ESPN Radio call, which of course also airs on WMVP 1000-AM. XM will also play a 24-hour marathon of baseball songs and comedy routines starting at 11 a.m. Sunday on Channel 55.