SBJ/May 4 - 10, 1998/No Topic Name

Buffy outruns Cubs in rating

The Tribune Co. has a message for the legions of nationwide Chicago Cubs fans outraged over the decision to pull 60 games off superstation WGN-TV in favor of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer": Get used to it.

Just 25 games into the Cubs season, the radical programming shift is proving profitable for the Tribune Co. as ratings for Warner Bros. Network shows like "Buffy" and "Dawson’s Creek" are averaging a point higher than Cubs games.

The WB Network programming has a 6 point rating on WGN, meaning that 6 percent of Chicago’s 3.2 million households are tuned to WB Network shows. The Cubs games on WGN have a 5 point rating.

For years, the Tribune Co. has broadcast 145 Cubs games on WGN, the most of any big league team. As a result, the Cubs became a nationwide brand attractive to advertisers looking to sell to ardent fans that had grown accustomed to watching nearly every game.

This spring, however, the Tribune Co. surprised advertisers and fans alike by cutting the number of games on WGN to 92, while subbing in WB Network programming for the 53 other games. WGN reaches 42 million homes outside of Chicago.

Tribune officials insist the move be entirely tied to declining ratings of Cubs games. The Tribune owns a 22 percent stake in the WB Network and the company is anxious to cash in on an investment that’s targeted at teen-agers and the lucrative 18-49 age demographic.

"This isn’t just a ratings argument; we still televise more games than anybody else," said WGN Vice President Peter Walker. "The decision was made on the overall basis that WB Network will do better with patterned broadcasting while we still retain a Cubs presence. The whole game has changed, but Cubs fans are a breed apart."

The next highest number of games on free TV is by the Turner Broadcasting System, which broadcasts 90 Braves games. In contrast, the Pittsburgh Pirates broadcast just 15 games. Ten other franchises televise 50 or fewer games per season.

Industry sources said the Tribune’s decision to trim games was long overdue, with the company slow to respond to the changing economics of baseball.

"Every other team has had a cable deal for years because you get both advertising and subscriber revenue streams," said one Chicago television executive. "That’s why the game has migrated to cable."

The publicly held Tribune Co. does not separate its individual television revenue. Instead, revenue from all 16 of the company’s television stations and the Cubs are lumped into its broadcasting and entertainment business segment. Last year, the company’s broadcast and entertainment segment earned $286 million on $1 billion in revenue, compared to $204 million on $877 million in revenue in 1996. Total 1997 Tribune profits was $393 million on $2.7 billion in revenue, compared to a profit of $372 million on $2.4 billion in revenue in 1996.

WGN officials said they haven’t decided whether to shift even more games to cable. If they do, advertising experts warn that the move could backfire.

"There is a balancing act on how far they can push it before they take away from the brand image," said Bruce Blair, vice president of sports media for Starcom, the media division of Leo Burnett. "The [Tribune Co] isn’t there yet, but if they take too hard an edge, they’re taking a risk."

WGN officials said the programming shift does not buck the trend of large corporations like the Tribune, Turner Broadcasting, and now the Murdoch-owned Fox Network that use sports as ways to fill programming.

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