Baseball's a Hit for Fox Family

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Fox Family Channel's inaugural coverage of Major League Baseball divisional playoff games has thus far garnered better-than-expected ratings, while causing headaches for some operators that don't carry the service.

The network's Oct. 9 primetime telecast of a St. Louis Cardinals-Arizona Diamondbacks contest earned a 3.5 rating — easily trumping the network's 0.4 regular-season rating. The game, one of two primetime Fox Family baseball telecasts (the second was scheduled for Oct. 12), also bested ratings for all of ESPN's 2000 division playoff telecasts. But none of ESPN's games were telecast in primetime.

As expected, the Cardinals-Diamondbacks game drew a higher rating among men ages 25 to 54 (2.6) than any other program in kids-targeted Fox Family's history.

Fox Family Channel's Braves-Astros telecast on the afternoon of Oct. 9 generated a strong 1.3 rating.

No ratings for games after Oct. 9 were available at press time.

Fox Family found itself in an unusual position: Cable customers in some markets were complaining loudly about not getting the network.

The network is currently in more than 83 million homes, but Time Warner Cable in Orlando and Daytona Beach, Fla., switched it to a lightly penetrated digital tier on Sept. 22.

Only about 210,000 of the systems' 700,000 subscribers were able to view Fox Family's Oct. 9 games on digital, according to Time Warner officials.

Time Warner vice president of corporate communications Mike Luftman said Fox Family was moved to make room for WE: Women's Entertainment, which Time Warner was contractually obligated to offer on an analog tier.

But there could be another motivation for the move. A local Time Warner Cable spokesman Brian Craven told the Orlando Sentinel
last week that the service was shifted digital to head off possible rate increases after the network's pending sale to The Walt Disney Co. closes. Craven did not return phone calls to Multichannel News.

After Disney announced its $5.3 billion acquisition of Fox Family Worldwide last July, operators predicted that Disney would jack up the network's rate card, which now calls for a moderate monthly license fee of 17 to 20 cents per subscriber.

Given Fox Family's viewership, Craven told the Sentinel
that it wasn't ideal for the system to raise the price for standard cable just to keep the channel — to be renamed ABC Family once the sale is closed — on traditional basic.

Luftman would not comment on the MSO's existing contract terms for Fox Family, including whether Time Warner's contract with the network is up for renewal in the near future.

As a courtesy to subscribers, Time Warner sources said the system offered a free digital upgrade to customers, but it was unclear at press time how many homes took advantage of the offer.

Fox Family was also absent from nearly 200,000 homes among AT&T Broadband's approximately 2 million subscribers in the San Francisco area. MSO vice president of external communications Andrew Johnson said Fox Family was not available to subscribers who were not within the MSO's upgraded area.

AT&T Broadband also nixed any plans to offer Fox Family Channel playoff games on a local access channel, as it did for ESPN2 last August during the X Games. Even though the network was not carried in the market, AT&T — urged on by San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown — offered ESPN2 coverage of the X Games, held in San Francisco, on a government access channel.

"That was a unique situation because it was a very important and public event in San Francisco. We did it as a favor to the mayor," Johnson said. "ESPN2 and Fox Family Channel are two very different creatures."

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