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Volume 21 No. 39
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Fox’s Big East hoops ratings, by Mark Twain

Every time I write about television ratings, I think of the Mark Twain phrase about the three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.

For media executives, a TV ratings number is never just a number. They can make a huge number on a rival network seem like a disaster just as easily as they can make a tiny number on their own network seem like a huge accomplishment.

That brings us to this year’s Big East basketball ratings on Fox, which are either disastrously low (according to Fox’s rivals) or right on target (according to Fox executives).

Using a standard “average viewership per game” metric, this year’s Big East games on Fox and FS1 rate lower than mid-major conferences such as the Missouri Valley, Horizon and American Athletic.

Disaster, right?

Not necessarily. Fox and conference executives say the Big East’s total viewing on Fox this season — not average viewing — puts the conference among the power five conferences. Fox argues that the total viewing metric — which essentially adds up all viewers across all games — gives the Big East more exposure than other conferences get from their TV deals. Fox’s 12-year, $500 million Big East deal mandates that every men’s basketball game gets carried nationally on Fox or FS1.

“If it were all about average viewership, we would just take our best 10 or 15 games, put them in the best time slots that we could, and we would be able to throw a number up that would be comparable to the biggest of the power five conferences,” said Mike Mulvihill, Fox Sports senior vice president of programming and research. “There’s not that much value in that for us, and there’s no value in that for the schools. A lot of the value in our relationship is to allow to schools to go out and recruit and saying that such a higher percentage than in any other conference of your games is going to be televised nationally.”

For the 2015-16 season, Fox’s 125 Big East games logged 2.382 billion minutes watched, 53 percent higher than the first season of this deal, when 128 Big East games logged 1.555 billion minutes watched, Fox said.

“We have the only relationship within college basketball where every game within the conference is televised nationally, which hurts average viewership but helps total viewership,” Mulvihill said. “When you look at the total time spent, where we project to finish the regular season, the Big East is among what we think of as the power five conferences.”

How that explanation falls into Twain’s phrase is in the eye of the beholder.

— John Ourand