- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 9, 2003

“His father is the district attorney!” bellowed actor Ron Silver.

As anyone who watched the baseball playoffs and World Series on Fox knows all too well, that line was from a promo for “Skin,” a new series on Fox that began last month. The count hasn’t been made public, but the ad and that melodramatic line probably were aired more than replays of either Cubs fan Steve Bartman taking a foul ball away from Moises Alou in Chicago or Pedro Martinez’s takedown of Don Zimmer.

Last week, barely a fortnight after “Skin” first hit the airwaves amid that saturation-level promotion, Fox canceled its stylized remake of “Romeo and Juliet.” “The Next Joe Millionaire,” also relentlessly pushed by Fox during the playoffs, is still alive but struggling badly.

Far more than simple viewer tuneout, the anemic showings for “Skin” and “Millionaire” quickly raise a broader and more fundamental question: Has sports lost its way as an effective promotional tool for other programming on network TV?

After all, the divisional and championship rounds of this fall’s baseball playoffs were the most watched in eight years, and the World Series between the New York Yankees and Florida Marlins showed a decent improvement over last year’s paltry totals. For the first time in years, baseball’s postseason elevated beyond mere sport to a true pop culture event and constant water cooler fodder.

“[The promotion] clearly didn’t work,” said Gail Berman, Fox Entertainment president, at last week’s gathering of the International Radio and Television Society Foundation. “The audience seems to have rejected those programs.”

Even as ratings for network TV sports have eroded over the last decade, there are plenty of entertainment division success stories that owe much of their success to sports. The entire Fox Sunday night lineup, starting with “King of the Hill” and extending through “The Simpsons” and “Malcolm in the Middle,” benefits mightily from the push and lead-in audience of NFL football and has for nearly a decade. Similarly, CBS several years ago recovered from a marked aging of its typical audience by regaining NFL broadcast rights.

And on NBC, “Friends” became that network’s gold-standard program in part on the heels of a post-Super Bowl special in 1996 that drew an average audience of nearly 53million viewers — still a record for viewership for programming airing immediately after the NFL title game. Other hit shows sparked by sports include “24,” “CSI,” and the many editions of “Survivor.”

More recently, however, bumps in that promotional road have surfaced. Utterly forgettable, little-watched shows such as “girls club,” “Fastlane” and “Baby Bob,” failed to capitalize on high-profile promotions during sports telecasts and become established series. January’s Super Bowl between Tampa Bay and Oakland was a dull rout, and the “Alias” episode that aired immediately after on ABC set a low for post-Super Bowl ratings.

This promotional question is critical because rights fees for major sports are based in part on their ability to drive viewers to other shows and not just the games. Without that effective link in place, the value of the TV sports quickly diminishes.

“I don’t how many baseball fans were ever going to want to watch a remake of ‘Romeo and Juliet,‘“said Bill Carroll, vice president and director of programming for Katz Television Group, a New York industry consulting firm. “I think [sports] can still be a great platform. But you have to figure out who your audience is and promote to that audience. Shows like “The O.C.” and “Skin” are counterprogramming to football, not a liftoff from football.”

Interestingly, network executives themselves are taking the blame for this fall’s poor promotional results and not simply lashing out at high-dollar rights fees for sports as usual. That angst is being reserved for Nielsen Media Research, which compiles TV ratings and is under attack from the major networks for its viewership sampling methods.

“We’ve often said that with baseball comes the advantages and challenges of having a promotional platform,” Berman said. “Some of our other programs and baseball don’t fit comfortably.”

That demographic question is a particularly troubling subtext of the broader question. Network executives such as Fox’s Berman are now saying their schedules of new shows this season skew too female, blunting the ability of promotion through sports. But in recent years, reality shows popular with women like the original “Joe Millionaire,” “Big Brother,” and “American Idol” also received lifts from sports.

And then there is a more fundamental truth: If the shows being promoted during high-profile sports telecasts are terrible, no level of hype is going to help.

“Some of [the new] programming just [stunk],” said Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Entertainment.

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