MLB on Fox: New voices, channel, platforms
As Fox Sports embarks on its new eight-year, $4.2 billion deal with Major League Baseball later this week, its game presentation has undergone the biggest changes since 1996, when the network first started producing MLB games.
Fox Sports will have new voices calling the games, a new TV channel carrying the games and new digital platforms hosting the games.
“With its new eight-year deal, Fox has made an unprecedented commitment to baseball, and we want to make sure we give that same level of commitment back to Fox,” said Tim Brosnan, MLB’s executive vice president of business. MLB’s commitment comes in the form of more windows, fewer blackouts and increased flexibility for the network to pick games for its Fox Sports 1 channel.
The new baseball deal starts after Fox limped out of 2013 with its lowest regular-season audience to date: an average of 2.4 million viewers a game. Last season, though, ended strongly for Fox. Thanks mainly to the presence of the popular Boston Red Sox, Fox posted its biggest ALCS audience since 2010 and best World Series audience since 2009.
Plus, on the local front, Fox’s roster of RSNs posted big ratings in several markets. The Detroit Tigers (FS Detroit), St. Louis Cardinals (FS Midwest) and Cincinnati Reds (FS Ohio) averaged three of the four highest local TV ratings in MLB last season.
“We look at the whole picture of baseball. More people are watching more baseball than ever before,” said Fox Sports President Eric Shanks. “If you look at the last 10 years, baseball’s probably at its healthiest point from a viewership perspective.”
The six biggest changes viewers will notice from Fox’s baseball telecasts:
■ New channel
Fox will move some games, such as Yankees-Angels, from its regional sports networks to national coverage on Fox Sports 1.
Twenty-six of Fox’s regular-season game windows will be what Fox is calling “regional elevates.” That’s when a game between two teams from Fox markets gets moved from the RSNs onto Fox Sports 1 exclusively. For instance, a “regional elevate” would be when the Yankees play the Angels because Fox operates both teams’ RSNs.
“We created this schedule in partnership with our regions so that we don’t hurt their economics in their own market with a number of games that are exclusive to Fox Sports 1,” said Bill Wanger, Fox Sports Media Group’s executive vice president of programming, research and content strategy. “The thing we’re most excited about is dominating Saturdays with baseball coverage across all of our platforms. There will be no doubt in the viewers’ mind that Saturday is Fox baseball day.”
■ New broadcast booth
For the first time since it launched baseball in 1996, Fox will have new voices calling its games. Gone is longtime analyst Tim McCarver. In his place is a former player, Harold Reynolds, and a writer, Tim Verducci. Joe Buck still will do play-by-play and round out the network’s top booth.
Shanks, Fox Sports executive producer John Entz, and former Fox Sports executive Ed Goren auditioned the three during a late-season game in St. Louis last year against the Giants.
“There’s been a lot of debate about whether a three-man booth works in baseball,” Brosnan said. “This is a dramatic change and a bold stroke.”
Buck, who was effusive in his praise of McCarver, said the booth will be more conversational than it has been in the past several years. Reynolds has a rapport with the current players, and Verducci has sources on the business of baseball.
“What we’ve talked about as a group is trying to have more of a conversational feel to it,” Buck said. “It’s not going to be on April 5 what it’s going to be in a year. I think it’s going to come out of the gate sounding really fun.”
■ Instant replay
The league’s instant replay system will be new for all the league’s TV partners. But with most of baseball’s crown jewel events on Fox, including the All-Star Game and World Series, it may be noticed more there.
MLB and Fox executives believe the TV networks will benefit from the league’s new replay system. “The treatment of instant replay on TV really has the potential for making a quantum leap in the baseball broadcast booth,” Brosnan said.
Shanks said he has no concerns that the replay system will prolong games.
“There’s nothing negative about the introduction of replay into baseball,” Shanks said. “Is it going to be a work in progress? The NFL replay system is vastly different today, and they tweak it every year. It’s here to stay.”
■ New studios
In 2012 and 2013, Fox and MLB Network co-produced a 30-minute pregame show from MLB Network’s Secaucus, N.J., studios. This season, Fox is taking the pregame show back to its Los Angeles studios. Kevin Burkhardt will be the main host for the 30-minute show. Former players like Frank Thomas, Eric Karros, Gabe Kapler and C.J. Nitkowski will be analysts.
■ More streaming
For the first time, Fox’s national games will be streamed to authenticated subscribers on Fox Sports Go, regardless of which channel is carrying them. “Fans are going to get probably close to 100 baseball games in Fox Sports Go, including the postseason,” Shanks said. “With this new deal, baseball is a big part of Fox Sports Go. Every Saturday and through the postseason, every game is going to be available on your phone or your tablet or your desktop.”
Fox will have more games. It also will have more shoulder programming around those games. It is rolling out a nightly show called “MLB Whiparound” for Fox Sports 1 that will look and feel a lot like ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight” and MLB Network’s “MLB Tonight.”
It also is producing several shows with MLB Productions. One, “Derek Jeter: Baseball Pays Tribute,” is a show that will premiere later this spring.