Historian Curt Smith examines why the World Series TV ratings have dropped badly since 1988

Smith: By now, a typical baseball game brooks “Bullpen Roulette”—almost as many changes as Heinz has varieties of ketchup.



On September 30, 1989, NBC telecast its last of more than a thousand Games of the Week since 1957, sports’ oldest and longest-running series. That week, President George H. W. Bush, having watched it, met journalists in the White House to preview baseball’s postseason. A year earlier, CBS had paid a stunning $1.04 billion for 1990-93 big-league exclusivity. Just before the meeting, it prompted greater shock by announcing 1990 regular-season coverage—a pee-wee dozen games aired randomly over 26 weeks. To Bush, such a trifle evoked a French Renault he had bought in the early 1950s—“by far the world’s smallest car.” Under small world, the president had asked friend and now baseball commissioner Fay Vincent and cousin Bucky Bush to drive it from Connecticut to Texas. The car’s best feature was size: “so small, it made great speed.” Its worst: “Fay played football, and with Bucky they weighed more than the Renault.”

That October, Al Michaels was airing ABC’s 1989 World Series pre-game show from Candlestick Park when an earthquake severed the network feed, killed 67 in the Bay Area, and postponed the game and Classic. Since NBC had aired baseball since 1939, the prospect of losing the sport in a post-1989 TV pact had seemed almost as remote as the carnage. Surely any new partner would augment NBC’s regular-season coverage. “All baseball needed to be was patient. They could have added CBS to NBC. Who’d want to kill Game?” said Bob Costas. “Not unless a new network cared only about postseason”—and baseball cared only about cash.

Curt Smith

Such a network lived—and baseball was such a buyer. Both ignored a point I made in 1989 essays in Newsweek and Sports Illustrated—and October 2018’s meager A.C. Nielsen ratings have proved anew: If you can’t watch regular season, you won’t watch postseason. Each LCS badly trailed the prior year’s audience. Fox Ratings for the first three World Series sets were all lowest since 2015, Game Three down 9 percent since 2017. (Later games, Part Four, Wednesday.) A reason involves forgetting the lesson of CBS’s 1990 Dirty Dozen. “You didn’t know when Game was off,” said NBC’s Marv Albert, “or care when it came back.”  Such erratic exposure was far too little to knit regular season or promote postseason. On the other hand, ESPN TV began a five-game-a-week series for cable America—then six homes in ten—too much.

Baseball had been at high tide in October 1988, Kirk Gibson homering. The tide receded even as CBS tried to quell the furor by upping coverage to 16 random yearly games.  No longer would each Saturday hinge, as Vin Scully said, on pulling up Game’s chair. “End[ing] a great American institution,” he said, “will leave a vast window [of viewers without] access and I think that’s a tragedy.” CBS’s ratings became less than 40 percent of Vin’s Game. At a 1988 Christmas party, one CBS exec wore a Cardinals hat. By 1992, pining to shed baseball, he wore a cap styled “One more year.” The each-Saturday habit of watching Game had been crucial to its appeal.

In 1990, 61 percent of CBS-TV poll respondents said they cared about baseball v. 39 percent in 1994. A 1994-95 players strike didn’t help. Neither did new acting/later official commissioner Bud Selig inking a same year TV pact even worse than CBS’s. The in-house/ABC-NBC “The Baseball Network” (TBN) was invisible till July, lacked national or day coverage, carved the LCS and new Division Series into areas of “natural interest,” and augured baseball today: little cachet, interest among kids, or buzz. Wrote Sports Illustrated: “Such an abomination is The Baseball Network that in Seattle, where in people don’t cross against a red light on the emptiest of streets, fans booed whenever the Kingdome PA announcer made mention.” It seemed twenty centuries, not years, since 124 million Americans watched the 1975 World Series.

TBN so imploded that in 1996 Selig pledged to go back to the future, signing a two-network pact with NBC to split postseason and the All-Star Game. Like CBS, Fox aired baseball on the cheap: 16 regional sets ending in late summer. Its Voice was Joe Buck, Jack’s son, the Series’ youngest play-by-play man since 25-year-old Scully in 1953. He marveled at Vin “doing nine innings every night. I can’t … even imagine wanting to do that.” Everyone has flaws, but Joe’s was troubling. He didn’t much like the game: “It takes forever.” Acquiring baseball, Australian-born Fox sports president head David Hill yelped, “No more dead guys”!—presumably banning Jackie Robinson and Mickey Mantle. This was not an auspicious start. On the other hand, given CBS’s 1990-93 fiasco, it was assumed that any network that bought baseball primarily for the Series, as Fox did, grasped how regular-season player/team anonymity crippled postseason profit.

This insight was crucial because by 1996 other areas of baseball access had ebbed. Most P.M. papers were dead. Increasingly, morning papers joined them or shrank in circulation. Since 1967, the percentage of Americans who even read a paper the prior day has plunged from 76 to 41 (2001) to 20 percent (2016). In 1982, USA Today was founded, bragging of its daily baseball. Today big-league coverage trails football and hoops. In 1991, it began Baseball Weekly newsmagazine. Hurt by the Strike, it reemerged as Sports Weekly, the bigs now an afterthought. In 1986-97, CBS Radio, inverting Fox, even put baseball spots on football inventory to plug regular- and postseason. In 1997, ESPN outbid it. Today its outlet clearance starkly trails CBS’s 98 percent—so far fewer hear Game.

Under Selig, baseball’s 1992-2015 head, revenue hit $6.07 billion by 2006—but at what cost? “The majors want cash, glad to have one guy see 100 games,” said Voice Ernie Harwell. “The NFL wants cash and exposure: 100 guys seeing a given game.” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones grasped real exposure: “The most popular TV sport is the most popular sport.” By 2009, football led baseball as Gallup’s favorite, 43-11 percent. That January 1 the bigs introduced the 24/7 debut of MLB Network in 50 million homes, tying highlight, interview, play-by-play, and archive. The sole flaw was not its fault: no one turns to MLB by accident: only the converted, not convertible, watch. Most had expected MLB to supplement network coverage. Instead, the new outlet was improbably asked to supplant it.

About this time another problem began to truly undermine TV baseball. For years the pastime has been played at a slow, sedate pace. In the last decade its pace has often turned unwatchable. Glacial on-air fare sabotages even a highly-rated network. Refusing to concede harm, Selig at one time or another called baseball interest “[sic] legendary, “unbelievable, “and “so incredible I can hardly describe it.” Each year the bigs pledge “Next Year” about siring a quicker, better pace—to stop pitchers from dawdling; batters from stepping in and out of the box again; and umps from not calling a high strike—and next year never comes. If baseball were the Politburo, this would be about the 30th year of its sixth five-year plan.

Joe and dad, legendary voice, Jack Buck

By now, a typical baseball game brooks “Bullpen Roulette”—almost as many changes as Heinz has varieties of ketchup. A Tolstoy novel can be well begun even in a 1-0 shutout. This month’s third World Series game showed the problem in 20/20 form—18 innings of only 18 hits but a Series record 34 strikeouts, taking seven hours and 20 minutes to play, longer than the entire 1939 Fall Classic! Another obstacle to viewing pleasure is a vertical wire and mesh backstop blocking the home plate camera, like watching through a net or prison bars. Compounding it: the camera usually towers far above the field, like watching from another state. Yogi Berra said you can observe a lot by watching. You rarely watch what you can’t see.

In 2007-13, what you saw was Fox reviving an each-Saturday Game of the Week. Ratings, not surprisingly, rose. Had Selig cared about the public, he would have urged Fox to keep it, but his priority lay elsewhere. Instead, Fox’s and cable partner TBS’s 2014-21 pact returned coverage to 12 games—Saturday’s Baseball Night in America. In a new low, Fox’s cable system, FS1 got rights to 40 Saturday afternoon sets—baseball as filler on outlets a viewer was unaware of or needed a handbook to find. (In hotels, as with MLB, don’t even try.) “Baseball was refuse for Fox’s garbage dump,” said a source. “Neither expected people to watch. Games just filled time. Fox only wanted the Series. Selig only wanted the cash”—too, Rob Manfred, his equally fan-unfriendly 2015- successor.

In 2018, the National League Division Series was aired by small-audience MLB and FS1. The American League DS was almost as bad, USA Today’s Christine Brennan writing of the trouble-laden NFL, “We’ve been focusing on the wrong sport. Major league baseball is the one that’s truly suffering,” the Red Sox and Yanks luring only 4.41 million viewers on TBS October 8. That night pro football’s mundane Washington-New Orleans blew baseball out: 10.6 million on ESPN. As Charlie Brown said, “Good grief.”

Each 2018 LCS, baseball’s penultimate event, ensued, with media hubs Boston, Houston, and Los Angeles, another fine baseball city in Milwaukee, the defending titlist Astros, priceless Fenway Park and Dodger Stadium, and national Red Sox and Dodgers with a century-old history and coast-to-coast cult. Q: How, according to Sports Media Watch, did each game’s ratings fall from 2017—a light-year from NBC and ABC helping make the LCS what then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn called a 1970s and ’80s “jewel”? A: Making cable its flagship despite scant ability to promote, wildly varying access, and millions of homes sans wiring and/or ability to pay—and as noted, play that even an octogenarian can find slow.

Item: On Saturday, October 20, FS1 aired NL Game Seven v. that day/night’s tsunami of college football on CBS, ABC, and Fox. The latter ditched the LCS for Oregon-Washington State football—Brewers-Dodgers’ 7.34 million viewers the least-watched Game Seven ever. Item: By contrast, NBC’s Sunday Night Football’s 18.59 million and Fox’s Thursday Night Football’s 13.27 million viewers ranked 1-2 in that week’s network ratings. Item: Cable’s generic ceiling can be very low. On October 18, the Red Sox won the LCS on TBS. On Fox, Denver that night routed Arizona in a football game giving meaningless new meaning. Its 6.6 rating clobbered Boston’s 5.0.

The worst example of cable-first making baseball-last came Sunday, October 14. That night the Red Sox, a New England heirloom, hosted Houston in the LCS at Fenway Park, a region’s epicenter. Meanwhile, the football Patriots played regular-season v. Kansas City. The “national” baseball team drew a 4.1 TBS rating v. the NFL’s 14.6 on NBC. As shocking, the Sox were buried in Boston, 34.3 to 20.6, by a once-punch line of a football team. Said a friend, “I never thought I’d see this day”—the evolution of the last quarter-century on and off the field.

I live in Upstate New York, home of the Hall of Fame, Yankees and Red Sox country, among the most organized professional teams of any state—baseball primacy a fact. In 2004, Sox Voice Joe Castiglione visited where I teach, the University of Rochester. Each of us had new books; hundreds stood inside and out in the cold, more to see Joe than me. This fall I counted only three students with a Boston cap or T-shirt on campus, a feel for the game ebbing among the young.

Two generations have grown up with baseball almost blacked out on the one free national medium—network TV—key to whether they like or even know about the sport. After it first decided to slash regular-season coverage, I scored in print the sport’s Reverse Midas Touch. For a decade baseball rationalized the irrational. Finally, former commissioner Peter Ueberroth’s public relations man, Richard Levin, wrote a gracious letter ending, “You were right all along.” Sadly, baseball since then has gone from bad to worse.

Several years back, Sports Illustrated wrote, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, baseball fans.”

Part Four will end this series with a specific program for renewal—a sport worthy of its public and of its nonpareil past. In 2018, two grand and historic teams met in the World Series for the first time since 1916. How, baseball mused, could they not electrify the land? Perhaps easily, as it occurred.

Curt Smith, baseball broadcast historian: MLB hasn’t yet reclaimed September as Bud Selig vowed

How did MLB, then dominant on TV, respond to the eruption of the NFL in the 1960s?



Curt Smith

CURT SMITH is the author of 18 books, including Voices of The Game, recently named by Esquire magazine among “the 100 Best Baseball Books Ever Written.” His latest is the official Hall of Fame book, Memories from the Microphone. USA Today calls Smith “the leading voice of authority on baseball broadcasting.” He wrote more speeches than anyone for President George H. W. Bush, The New York Times styling his work “the high point of Bush familial eloquence.” Since 1998, Smith has been Senior Lecturer of English at the University of Rochester, teaching Public Speaking and Presidential Rhetoric.

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Michael Green
5 years ago

I am eager to see Mr. Smith’s suggestions for the future, and second what he has had to say about the past. When he mentioned ESPN, he did NOT mention Sunday Night Baseball, which was theoretically the new Game of the Week, and had the best available play-by-play outside of The Vin, Jon Miller. It didn’t work, it seems to me, partly because it was on cable, which still isn’t universal; it aired at a time when people were getting ready to start a new week and kids were going to bed; and with all of the other ESPN games,… Read more »