When and how did broadcast television lose the battle to cable?

What is the most popular programming on television this summer? What network is most attracting viewers’ attention with all the choices out there?

Is it NBC on the back of its hit reality show America’s Got Talent?

Is it CBS and its collection of shows popular with all ages, from Big Brother to 60 Minutes?

Is it ABC with shows like The Bachelorette? Or Fox with MasterChef and Hell’s Kitchen?

Perhaps it’s something on cable? Might it be TNT on the back of Major Crimes and Rizzoli and Isles?

Perhaps it’s USA on the back of the insanely popular WWE Raw?

Perhaps it’s seasonal and occasional programming like Shark Week on Discovery or Sharknado 2 on SyFy?

Perhaps it’s whatever ESPN puts on, since sports seems to be the big thing these days?

The correct answer is none of the above.

For 12 of the 24 markets where at least one relevant RSN isn’t embroiled in carriage disputes, the correct answer is the local baseball team on the local RSN, according to Maury Brown’s analysis on Forbes.com.

Several more teams place in the top three, and every single one of the 27 US teams whose RSN isn’t embroiled in carriage disputes ranks in the top nine shows in primetime in their respective markets – regardless of how they’re doing in the standings.

All told, local baseball team games add up to an average 1.99 household rating – and that doesn’t include the viewership the Dodgers and Astros would be getting if they weren’t mired in carriage disputes, or the viewership teams get from outlying markets.

For the record, the 10th-most watched show on cable TV for the week of August 4-10 only managed a 2.2 rating – and at least two shows in the top ten didn’t air in primetime.

Forget about ESPN; it may well be RSNs and the local sports they provide that keep people tied to their cable connection more than anything else.

Out of all national baseball broadcasts in 2013, only four or five of the six World Series games drew a higher rating than Detroit Tigers regular-season games averaged through the 2014 All-Star Break. Only the remaining World Series games beat the regular-season average of the Cardinals and Pirates – and one of those teams was in that World Series. And the World Series was on broadcast, while all those local games were on cable.

Perhaps most tellingly, no sports event on cable that wasn’t a BCS or NFL game drew a better rating in 2013 than the Tigers, Cardinals, and Pirates 2014 regular-season averages.

For all that I complain about the BCS (and now the CFP) and the Final Four moving to cable, perhaps it is the absence of local Major League Baseball games on broadcast television that is the real crime. Of the many reasons why I hate the existence of “MyNetworkTV”, perhaps one of the bigger ones is that it should not have been necessary to provide programming to fill the hole on stations left behind by the CW merger. Local sports, especially baseball in summer, could have more than sufficed – if those stations were willing and able to acquire it.

By the way, MyNetworkTV was founded in 2006, two years before the BCS deal that first opened my eyes to cable’s unfair advantages over broadcast and made me worried about the march of sports events to cable.

Which brings me back to the question in the title of this post: When and how did broadcast television lose the battle to cable?

Was it the advent of the dual-revenue stream pioneered by ESPN? Was it when UPN and the WB were founded, giving formerly independent stations programming commitments that made it harder for them to air local sports? Was it when – implicitly voluntarily – broadcast stations “stopped bidding for sports rights“, surrendering them, the massive ratings they entailed, and what would turn out to be a big chunk of the reason for the existence of all of linear television, to RSNs that would in turn keep people tied to their cable connection? Was it when the CW merger happened and the stations left behind formed and/or joined MyNetworkTV rather than face an uncertain future – one that could have made them far more relevant than any alternative?

Whenever it happened, one thing is clear: the disappearance of local baseball from broadcast television is one of the great underrated stories of the rise of cable, and one of the great missed opportunities of the past few decades for broadcast – and still represents perhaps broadcast television’s greatest opportunity for relevance going forward. I still think the stations exist to support a true fifth broadcast network – in large part due to stations that held steadfastly to their independence rather than join the Fox network when it launched. But given this, I’m no longer sure how many of them would want to.

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] sports fans would dump cable en masse to sign up for ESPN – like my dad, they would want to watch their local team on regional sports networks and other sports on FS1, NBCSN, TNT, and numerous other networks. […]

  2. […] bowl game of significance, and every NCAA Tournament game not on broadcast television, plus, for fans of local teams, games of any team with an agreement with a Fox network. The main reason to get NBCU on board would […]

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