Recreation Domination: FOX Sports Spotlighted On Saturday Nights For Majority Of 2012

FOX is betting that live sports programming, including baseball, college football and NASCAR, will be more arresting television for viewers than longtime Saturday night staple "COPS." The question is whether there will be enough viewers around on Saturday nights to warrant this programming strategy.

FOX has Saturday night fever. Their prescription: sports, sports and even more sports.

The network is beefing up most of their foreseeable Saturday nights with programming from their sports division, hoping to attract viewers on a night that in recent years has seen viewing patterns subside.

FOX’s Saturday night programming is buoyed by nine Major League Baseball games including a pivotal game in this year’s World Series, and thirteen college football games including the Big Ten Championship game on the first day of December. There will also be three NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races “under the lights” over the next five weeks, and a few Ultimate Fighting Championship events scattered throughout the year.

The last time a sporting event was expected to receive huge ratings was in early January, when the Denver Broncos, off an improbable and impressive Wild Card win led by quarterback Tim Tebow (who, in case you have been living under a rock, now dons a different uniform), were facing off against the New England Patriots. The end result was a 20.6% overnight rating on CBS, which was actually outdone by the Saints/49ers playoff game that aired on FOX prior to the Broncos/Patriots contest. At around that time, I explained how Saturday night, which over the years had enjoyed traditional high viewership with shows such as “Fantasy Island” and “Diff’rent Strokes,” had become a vast wasteland in which networks – including FOX itself – had programmed reruns of shows that air on other nights of the week, or low-rated programs nearing cancellation or hiatus.

But Eric Shanks, the co-president and COO of FOX Sports Media Group, sees otherwise.

“We see Saturday nights as the perfect home for quality sports programming,” he said in a press release. “We’ve put together a solid schedule that gives us a consistent Saturday night franchise for the first time ever.”

Previously, FOX’s de facto Saturday night franchise for most of the previous two decades consisted of “COPS,” which is approacing its 25th anniversary, and “America’s Most Wanted,” which reached its 1,000th episode not too long ago, but since last year, has been effectively canceled, downgraded to quarterly specials on the network, with additional regularly scheduled episodes airing weekly on the Lifetime cable network. Indeed, part of the reason FOX removed the iconic crime-fighting series hosted by John Walsh from their lineup as a weekly show was because it was not financially viable, and “we need a space to air repeats.”

But FOX’s commitment to sports programming on Saturday nights – including a stretch of fifteen consecutive weeks starting September 1 – means “COPS” will be off duty for a large portion of their milestone season.

After the NASCAR event at Darlington on May 12 will be eight straight weeks of FOX’s “Baseball Night In America” franchise – which isn’t necessarily a new idea, by the way – culminating on July 7, the final Saturday before this year’s All-Star break. There will then be a seven-week sports sabbatical with the exception of a UFC event right in the middle of this period on August 4.

I should point out that there is somewhat of a misleading inaccuracy in FOX’s press release. At the beginning, it reads, “utilizing an enviable combination of college football, Major League Baseball, NASCAR, NFL and UFC events, FOX Sports has a big-time sports event scheduled on 28 of 32 Saturday nights from April 14 through December 8.” However, if you look at the rundown of Saturday night sporting events on FOX in 2012, not a single one listed is an NFL event. Meanwhile, FOX is scheduled to carry three NFL preseason games in August, but not on Saturdays. (Not that NFL exhibition games are “big-time sports events” to begin with.) And incidentally, the aforementioned Saints/49ers divisional playoff game – which did air on a Saturday, though in the late afternoon on the East Coast – was not mentioned in the entire press release, which does recall previous sports broadcasts on FOX in 2012, including the NFC Championship Game. Go figure. (Also, the text refers to “Game 4 of the World Series,” which actually is scheduled for October 28, which is a Sunday; Game 3 of the Series is set for Saturday, October 27.)

And the timing of this plan is interesting: note that it was days ago that FOX announced plans for a new general sports cable network to rival ESPN. Keep in mind that the channel that is projected to be converted into this proposed network, Fuel, already carries UFC events. Is it possible that the new FOX sports network could assume some or all of these sports programs based on the ratings FOX gets for them in 2012?

You can tell FOX is pumped up for sports on Saturday nights when they channel Elton John at the very beginning of their press release: “As the song goes, Saturday night’s alright for fightin’… and kickin’… and racin’… and pitchin’… and hittin’. Sorry, Elton.”

With FOX virtually abandoning a longtime Saturday night cornerstone for a new one, in an era where Saturday night is, according to ratings, not alright for watching television, when all is said and done at the end of this experiment, will FOX – to borrow another title from the Elton John song catalog – still be standing?

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