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Volume 21 No. 34
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Saturday night’s all right for Fox Sports

Get ready for Fox Sports, Saturday night.

Last week, Fox Sports’ production teams were told that Fox’s broadcast channel would carry sports programming in prime time for 28 of the next 32 Saturday nights.

The stat literally caused the producers who have to work those events to gasp. Fox had been adding extra baseball games here, and a UFC fight there. But few people realized how extensive Fox’s entry into prime time actually would be. Now it’s become clear: Fox Sports is taking over the broadcast network’s Saturday night schedule.

Fox Sports introduces “Baseball Night in America” for its eight prime-time MLB games this season.
“They were looking around like it hadn’t dawned on them yet,” said co-president and COO Eric Shanks, with a laugh. “The number of Saturday nights caught a lot of people by surprise.”

Fox Sports’ Saturday night schedule starts this week with a 7 p.m. ET Sprint Cup NASCAR race from Texas Motor Speedway. From April 14 to Dec. 8, Fox Sports will air 13 college football games, nine MLB games including Game 4 of the World Series, three NASCAR races and three UFC events.

“I would love to sit and say that two years ago it was a concerted plan to own Saturday night with sports,” Shanks said. “It doesn’t really work that way. You have to look at the opportunities that come up.”

Those opportunities arose with Fox’s Pac-12 deal last year, which gave it access to prime-time college football games. It also picked up the rights to the Big Ten championship game and UFC events, which added to its Saturday night programming.

Fox also stands to gain broadcast rights to Big 12 college football games should that conference’s rights negotiation with ESPN get finalized. Currently, Fox holds only the cable rights to Big 12 football games.

Saturday nights have long been viewed as a backwater for TV networks. The number of homes using television is at its lowest levels. Common wisdom is that many viewers aren’t at home watching TV on Saturday nights.

“Saturday night is a weak night for entertainment,” said Mike Trager, a sports media consultant. “In the past 20 years, you can’t name one entertainment show that has really taken off from the Saturday night window.”

In recent years, networks have toyed with using sports programming to deliver bigger Saturday night audiences. ABC and ESPN have found success by testing sports in Saturday night windows. Now Fox is sensing a chance to grab viewers via sports rather than with episodes of “Cops” and “America’s Most Wanted.”

“It’s going to save them a hell of a lot of cost that would be going to trying to develop shows,” Trager said. “Sports is very consistent for TV networks. It is very predictable.”

Traditionally, prime-time sports bring in more viewers than afternoon telecasts, which also leads to bigger ad rates.
Viewership for Fox’s three prime-time regular-season MLB games last season were 55 percent higher than for its afternoon telecasts, including double digit growth in the key male demographics.

This season, Fox is rolling out eight prime-time games, under the banner of “Baseball Night in America” (which appears to be a tongue-in-cheek shot at NBC’s “Football Night in America”). Baseball’s move to prime time should help increase the package’s TV ratings, which have been flat at a 1.8 rating for the last three years. It also comes as MLB opens negotiations for new media rights deals. ESPN, Fox and Turner Sports’ MLB deals end after the 2013 season.

ABC has seen the promise of live sports on a Saturday night broadcast window. While ABC averaged 5.5 million viewers for all of its college football telecasts last year, down slightly from the previous season, its 12 prime-time college football broadcasts averaged 6.7 million viewers, up 7.8 percent.

“What we saw last year with prime-time baseball and what we’ve seen with UFC and I think what ESPN has seen with college football, you can do good business on Saturday night,” Shanks said.

The prime-time push should help ad sales, allowing Fox to charge more for higher rated prime-time games while attracting advertisers that wouldn’t traditionally buy into sports.

“We’re really excited about the increased access to different advertisers, as well as giving some of our loyal advertisers the opportunity to get prime-time ratings points,” Shanks said.

Fox said it has not encountered much push-back from affiliates complaining about sports programming that runs into their late night local newscasts. Fox is confident that sports’ bigger audiences outweigh problems from later-than-normal local newscasts.

“We’re sensitive to local news on our affiliates,” Shanks said. “That’s their time. We’re working with them on making sure that we’re reasonable and fair so that they can still do a local news business and that we can have a college football business.”

SportsBusiness Daily Assistant Editor Austin Karp contributed to this report.