Fox Family Channel will telecast first-round Major League Baseball playoff games this year in hopes of generating increased ratings while pulling in additional male viewers.
But whether the network will have access to the games next season — once The Walt Disney Co. completes its purchase of the network — remains unclear.
The service will televise as many as nine League Divisional Series playoff games, beginning this week. Fox Sports, which last year paid $2.5 billion for baseball TV rights through 2006, bestowed upon Fox Family both a weekly regular-season package on Thursday nights and opening-round playoff games.
The schedule calls for two of the games — on Oct. 9 and Oct. 12 — to run in primetime on the East Coast. The balance will air in afternoon or late-night windows.
Last year, ESPN's eight divisional playoff games garnered a 2.9 household rating, which was off 16 percent from the 3.5 average the network posted over seven postseason games during 1999.
While Fox Family averaged a 0.4 rating for its regular-season games, executive vice president Tom Cosgrove said that its playoff coverage could yield a two- to threefold increase.
"You usually see a two to three times bump across the board during the playoffs, so we're expecting the same type of increase," Cosgrove said. "The playoffs tend to draw more female viewers, along with male viewers."
Cosgrove also said Fox Family's baseball coverage would help the network promote original programs that could be of interest to male viewers, such as its 13 Days Of Halloween
Along with aggressive on-air promotion, the network's games will received heavy promotion during the Fox broadcast network's weekly national telecasts.
"It's a collaborative effort with Fox Broadcasting," Cosgrove said. "[Fox Broadcasting] is including us in everything they're doing to promote postseason coverage, and we're including them in our postseason promotions."
Although Fox Family has the rights to carry baseball's first-round playoff games for several years, it's unclear whether the channel will retain the package once the sale to Disney is complete. Last July, Disney agreed to pay $3 billion in cash and assume $2.3 billion in debt for Fox Family Worldwide, which includes the channel.
While Disney executives initially said they would keep the games on the revamped ABC Family service, industry observers believe that at least the divisional series games could move to ESPN. The 24-hour sports network has long aired a package of weekly Sunday and Wednesday night games, but lost its postseason rights after Fox signed its pact with MLB last fall.
Representatives from Disney could not be reached for comment at press time. Major League Baseball representatives declined comment about any potential scenarios until the Disney-Fox Family deal is finalized.
Even if the games air on ABC Family, they will have a distinct ESPN flavor. ESPN will produce the games and cross-promote the telecasts across its various cable sports services, according to Disney. ESPN will also handle advertising sales.