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Start times explained

Fox wants prime audience

By John Powers
Globe Staff / October 26, 2007

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Why does the World Series start at 8:35 p.m. on Wednesday, 8:29 on Thursday, and 8:40 on Monday? Is it linked to the lunar calendar? The tide table? Sunset in the Rockies? Joe Buck's biorhythms?

Depends on the day. Last night's first pitch was scheduled for six minutes earlier than Wednesday's because Fox Sports didn't have to present the lineups again. It'll be back to 8:35 (Eastern time) for tomorrow's Game 3 in Denver because with pitchers batting and designated hitters sitting, there will be new lineups. On Monday, it's 8:40 because the Broncos and Packers are playing a couple of miles down the road.

It's all about TV and counting back to 8 p.m., when Fox begins its pregame show. The editorial content, four commercial breaks, and a 2 1/2-minute national anthem take 29 minutes, and the umpire starts play. Usually. On Wednesday, the actual start was 8:37. Last night, it was 8:30. "When the times vary by a minute or two, it's because it's happening live," said Lou D'Ermilio, Fox Sports senior vice president of communications.

That's what occurs when life intrudes upon art. If John Williams drops his baton on the outfield grass while conducting the Pops or James Taylor goes adagio, the anthem can go overtime. Or if Curt Schilling feels insufficiently warmed up, the first pitch might be delayed. No problem, say the network folks. "[Announcers] Joe [Buck] and Tim [McCarver] will talk a little bit longer," said D'Ermilio.

Major League Baseball isn't worried about a syncopated clock either. This is a sport, after all, that often can be measured by hourglass. "A couple of minutes either way doesn't matter," said MLB spokesman Rich Levin.

What matters hugely, though, is the difference between day or night. 8:29 or 8:35 or 8:40 is fine. 1:30 or 2 won't work, at least not for TV.

"Our decision to start the games when we do is because it affords us the best possible opportunity to maximize the size of the audience from coast to coast," said D'Ermilio. "We've done a lot of research, and that's the window when most people are watching television."

The viewership numbers tell the tale. This year's Series opener, which earned a 10.5 rating and an 18 share, with 16.9 million viewers tuning in, was up more than 30 percent from last year's between the Cardinals and Tigers, which was held on a Saturday night.

Had that game been played in the afternoon, the numbers would have been even lower. "The ratings for afternoon games on weekends don't come close to the prime-time ratings," said Levin, who acknowledges that the notion of returning to day games comes up periodically.

So the Series figures to be under the lights unless they move it to the Land of the Midnight Sun. "They don't make these decisions in the abstract," said Red Sox president Larry Lucchino. "They're looking at the number of television viewers they can attract."

With Fox paying an estimated $250 million per year in baseball rights fees through 2013, it's likely that America's schoolkids will continue to trudge sullenly to bed in the fifth inning every October. "I think it's terribly unfortunate," said Lucchino, who remembers listening on a transistor radio to Bill Mazeroski winning the 1960 Series with a daytime home run. "But it's not because baseball is oblivious. People don't do this out of maliciousness."

They do it out of dollars and ratings, which is why the NFL has moved Monday night's game a half-hour to 8 Eastern time - give or take a minute.

Dan Shaughnessy of the Globe staff contributed to this report. John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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