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Postseason Baseball And The End Of The Three-Channel World

Baseball ratings: The Phillies' Pat Burrell is hitting a home run; how about the telecast? Jed Jacobsohn, Getty Images hide caption

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Jed Jacobsohn, Getty Images

by Sarah D. Bunting

Ah, October: the chill in the air, the pumpkin on the front porch, the mandatory annual proliferation of doom-saying "Why-isn't-anyone-watching-postseason-baseball" articles.

Variety tagged in on Wednesday, with a piece on the paltry 4.2 million total viewers TBS drew during divisional play.

Among the theories for that weak showing: The series didn't go on long enough; the New York teams didn't make the playoffs, which cost TBS a critical large-market audience; the Cubs' prompt and depressing ouster, blah blah blah, why can't we make people watch?

Every year, it's the same thing, and nobody ever comes up with any answers, because nobody is asking the right questions. Could any or all of the factors above have affected the ratings? Sure. A game that doesn't get played won't get watched, so duh, a short series drops viewer totals. The New York thing is probably overstated; almost everyone here is from somewhere else, and there's no shortage of Red Sox fans around the city, or of baseball fans who watch the postseason regardless of who's in it. And if the Cubs' offense wasn't going to show up, why should the audience?

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What's really driving low ratings, after the jump...

The real issue, though, is that network executives expect baseball to pull the same numbers it did back in the day, before cable and the internet and fantasy football, and that's just not realistic. Forty, 50 years ago, the whole country watched the playoffs, because the whole country had no choice. With three channels, it's that or My Mother the Car.

Now, baseball is up against HBO, Facebook, and a handful of other sports that have exploded in popularity in the last half century. Baseball is not football; baseball's "Superbowl" is not one game, but a best-of-seven series that comes after two other series and a six-month regular season. You can't program it as an event the way you can football, because it isn't football.

And it isn't a presidential debate, and it isn't a newsmagazine show about the Wall Street collapse, and it doesn't have a halftime show. Baseball isn't a lot of things, but when low game ratings come in, don't look to the game as the problem; look at what the ratings really tell you.

They probably tell you, for example, that a game starting at 10 p.m. ET is going to lose kids and people who get up early for work. They probably tell you that a series between two expansion teams — last year's NLCS, for one — will do relatively poorly because those teams have not had time to build up the large, loyal fan bases that older teams like the Cubs or Red Sox have had for generations. And they don't tell you who watched the game on a DVR, or in a bar.

The subtext is always that something is wrong with baseball, but baseball itself is fine. It just doesn't exist in a three-channel world anymore, and the networks would probably feel a lot better about baseball's ratings if they set their expectations at a basic-cable level.

Sarah D. Bunting is chief cook and bottle-washer at Tomato Nation.com, and puts together eminently random assortments of fantasy baseball teams at crazynines.blogspot.com.