According to USA Today's Michael Heistand, Game One of the World Series did not rate too well on Saturday night. (Well, it was the highest rated Saturday night program since March, but I guess that's beside the point.) Heistand notes that, unless the series is extended to a seventh game (presumably, six wouldn't even cut it), this will be the lowest-rated Fall Classic on record.
Concerning the ratings themselves, Heistand plays it by the book. He doesn't link declining television ratings to declining interest in baseball; he points to the lack of the Yankees or Red Sox as participants, but it seems to be that this is a pretty routine observation. (Game One rated well in Houston and Chicago, but neither team really has a national following.) However, beyond this superficial analysis, Heistand's column has some rather significant problems, if you ask me.
First---and I admit this is a matter of taste---Heistand characterizations FOX's coverage as "first-rate." I'm not sure how he can make that endorsement, but---again---that's a matter of taste. It's how he applies his assessment of FOX's coverage to reality that strikes me as shoddy:
That's nice, but I've never been convinced that isolated broadcasting vignettes---I like to call them "Rudy Martzke Specials"---demonstrate anything more than that a particular broadcaster conjured a neat line at a particular time, or that the production truck came through with a nice shot at a particular point in the game. Martzke tends to use these vignettes as evidence that a specific analyst is informative, or that, say, "CBS' A-Team is the best," which is one thing; to use a Martzke Special for the proposition that it'll draw in extra viewers (or even retain existing ones) is rather tenuous, in my opinion.
Heistand also notes:
It amazes me that columnists (they're everywhere, but Heistand is our subject here) will praise Joe Buck's continued good humor and sly sarcasm at his own network's production values without taking the next reasonable step: if FOX's promos and graphics and reminders and features weren't so intrusive on the action, Buck would have no cause to do so in the first place.
And here's where we enter salient points about FOX's coverage, at least in my mind: FOX doesn't respect the game.
I don't mean "respect" in quite the old, crotchety, "these youngsters don't have manners" sense; rather, I mean that FOX prances and preens around the broadcast, highlighting the wrong things and ignoring what makes watching a baseball game pleasurable: pacing, leisure, and observation. Back when FOX assumed the national television contract (in the 1996 postseason, but en masse in 1997), its execs consciously decided to televise baseball in a new, different, and more irreverent way. (Remember the prohibition against invoking the name of anyone dead?) Personal taste might be trudging back in again at this point, but I submit that FOX's initiative---however daring or justified it might have seemed at the time---has failed. (The "FOX attitude" seems to work for the NFL, but it's a different game.)
Combine FOX's failure with the undeniable proliferation of the television audience, especially in the past decade, and ratings are naturally going to decline---what I submit is that FOX's failure* has submerged the ratings a bit more. Essentially, I think FOX lost viewers at the beginning of the contract, and they mainly haven't come back. (Blame that on the effect of the Strike of '94 or the steroids controversy, if you will, but ticket sales have reemerged and remained strong in the same time period---as municipalities have ponied up big bucks for new baseball stadia.)
Maybe this series turns around, heads back to Chicago again, and the series ends with the most captivating Game Seven this side of the game that (thanks to CBS's love of slo-mo close-ups) rendered us initimately acquianted with Jack Morris' nose hairs. Or maybe not.
Regardless, I'm rooting NBC takes back the baseball contract next time around. Until then, I'll make use of my XM.
* Big slap for the first who interprets that in a manner the least bit political.