- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 22, 2009

Major League Baseball can thank the New York Yankees and a flurry of tense games for a postseason that could be one of the most watched in years.

Both TBS and Fox are reporting strong gains in viewership. Overall, ratings are about 13 percent higher than last year when the one-game AL Central playoff between the Twins and Tigers is factored in.

A bump in ratings should have been expected given that the postseason has featured the Yankees instead of the smaller-market Tampa Bay Rays, who secured the American League pennant last year. Viewership last year also may have been depressed because the postseason took place during the final weeks of the presidential campaign.

For TBS, now in its third year televising postseason games, it appears viewers have become more aware of the cable network as the go-to place for half the playoff coverage. There have been complaints about the quality of announcing on TBS, but it does not appear those concerns have kept viewers away from the Phillies-Dodgers series.

Fox, meanwhile, scored the most watched day baseball game in five years when the Angels topped the Yankees in 11 innings Monday. The game scored a 6.0 rating, approaching that of some evening games.

Game 4 of the ALCS on Tuesday night posted a 6.7 rating, a 34 percent increase over the comparable LCS game last year.

There are the inevitable complaints about the length of the postseason and the need to play these games in chilly, autumn conditions. This year’s World Baseball Classic led to a later start of the major league season, thus pushing the postseason into November. But aside from eliminating games or starting the season in March, this seems like an unsolvable situation unless teams and players are willing to have fewer off days and more doubleheaders in the regular season.

A bigger complaint from fans is that games are going on too long and ending too late. Baseball has tried to address that issue by moving the start times of all World Series games to before 8 p.m., but that still leaves games ending past 11 p.m. on the East Coast. Through Tuesday, the average postseason game clocked in at 3 hours, 38 minutes, with only one game lasting less than three hours. Five games lasted longer than four hours, including the Yankees’ 13-inning victory over the Angels on Saturday, which took 5 hours, 10 minutes.

Twenty years ago, half of the 14 postseason games played lasted less than three hours, and none topped four. A century ago, before the age of television, the Pirates and Tigers battled in a seven-game World Series that featured an average game time of 1 hour, 55 minutes. Unfair comparison? Perhaps, but it’s illustrative of how baseball has become more glacial over the years.

Fox and TBS have been fortunate that most of the games have been long this year in part because they’ve been undeniably compelling. Through Tuesday, 10 of the 21 playoff games were decided by a single run, with just six games decided by four or more. There have been four extra-inning games and five games decided in the final at-bat, already the second-highest total for a single postseason.

A Yankees-Phillies World Series likely would garner the best possible ratings overall, though much of that viewership will be concentrated in the Northeast. For what it’s worth, Philadelphia and New York both have had much stronger local ratings than the Los Angeles/Anaheim market during this postseason.