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For Networks, It’s a Whole New Ballgame

Nelson Doubleday, owner of the New York Mets, sounded off against network television’s treatment of baseball the other day, protesting weird scheduling over the weekend of the Mets’ championship games with the Dodgers.

With the teams forced to play on soggy ground early Saturday so as not to interfere with a college football broadcast, and early again on Monday so as not to conflict with Monday Night Football, Doubleday--a great nephew of the inventor of baseball, Abner Doubleday--accused ABC of “screwing with the national pastime” in an attempt “to make money off us and off college football and pro football.”

The playoffs and World Series are baseball’s showcase presentations, said Doubleday, arguing that he and his fellow team owners should say when and under what conditions games should be played.

Doubleday--whose team earned $17 million from local and network TV last year--may be right about the games, but he’s wrong about the networks. Maybe he doesn’t understand the business, but the networks are not making big money off baseball--ABC, in fact, is losing money on its $575-million contract with the major leagues--or any other sport.

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Affair Goes On

The audience for the Summer Olympics last month was smaller than anticipated and less than it was four years ago. The audience for the Super Bowl, the highest rated sports attraction on TV, was down 9% this year--and well below the average viewership of Super Bowls since 1984.

Is America ending its love affair with sports? No. The TV networks have the same problem with all their programming that they have with sports. It’s simply hard to gather a big audience for any particular show or attraction these days.

The number of TV viewers hasn’t diminished; there are 90.4 million TV households in the United States, according to A. C. Nielsen Co., the Chicago-based ratings taker. But viewership has fractionated--people are watching cable stations, local stations and movies on their VCRs.

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And that lowers the Nielsen ratings, which measure the percentage of total TV households tuned to a particular show. Ratings, of course, mean money; advertisers pay television stations for viewers just as they pay newspapers and magazines for readers. Fractionating viewership has meant lower prices for commercials and, therefore, declining revenue for networks.

Better Times

But the specific problem with baseball--as with other sports--is that the networks are living under contracts written years ago when programs drew more viewers. In 1984, NBC and ABC agreed to pay major league baseball about $200 million a year for the rights to broadcast regular season games, plus playoffs and the World Series.

The business was better then. For example, in 1985, baseball’s playoffs featuring teams from Kansas City, St. Louis, Toronto and Los Angeles were watched by 18% of the nation’s TV households, according to Nielsen--meaning almost $150,000 for a 30-second spot. But this year, with more populous markets represented (New York, New England, Northern and Southern California) only 15% of the TV households, on average, have watched the games--meaning about $120,000 per 30-second spot.

As a result the networks’ next contract for televising baseball--being negotiated now--will be less generous, as recent contracts for football have been.

But less money from networks doesn’t mean less baseball on TV. Undoubtedly, there will be more--a lot of it on cable.

The real story in sports, as in television these days, is cable. Basketball already makes extensive use of cable stations--which reach roughly half the country’s TV homes--and pro football has begun to do so. Now baseball may even start its own cable channel. “With cable, we could bring viewers the most crucial game of a pennant race, or the most exciting game of the day,” says Bryan Burns, the major leagues vice president in charge of TV policy.

Cable’s advantage is that it makes a virtue of fractionation. Cable stations may attract fewer viewers than network stations, but they attract a specific audience. A baseball station, that is, would attract viewers interested in baseball (which, in the shorthand of advertisers, means male viewers who are hard to reach through prime-time network TV). The proportional cost of commercials on such programing might well be higher because advertisers would pay a premium for reaching a specific audience.

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Change in the Works

The magazine business fractionated years ago. Once Life and Look and Saturday Evening Post had circulations in the millions and dominated newsstands nationally. Now the most successful magazines have smaller circulations but reach specific readerships--whether classified by age group, as in Modern Maturity--now the nation’s most profitable magazine--or interests, as in business magazines such as Forbes and Money.

Now television is about to undergo similar economic change--a process that might well lower the TV income of Doubleday’s Mets, but which is healthy overall. Simply put, television is changing to serve the varied tastes of a varied people. It’s a process as American as baseball.


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