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Exclusive: With Sports Play, Fox Remakes Saturday Night on Broadcast

Fox is hoping to change the Saturday- night broadcast network landscape in a major way by offering more than 100 hours of primetime live sports programming stretching 28 weeks, from April 14 through Dec. 8.

It's not quite the new cable Fox Sports Network that some predicted Fox parent News Corp. would be creating, but it will offer an unprecedented amount of primetime sports on mostly consecutive Saturdays through 2012.

The entire Saturday sports programming package has been in the planning stages for more than a year, as Fox Sports had to acquire rights and permissions to air certain games and events on Saturday nights.

"This is a collaborative effort between Fox Sports and Fox Entertainment," says Eric Shanks, president of Fox Sports. "We decided to do it because the opportunity was there. Ratings continue to go down on Saturday nights, and we thought we should take a swing at programming the night with sports each week."

The new Saturday-night lineup will include live NASCAR races, Major League Baseball games, Pac-12 college football and Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) bouts. As part of its MLB Saturday-night schedule, Fox will introduce a new half-hour studio show and will title the night "Baseball Night in America."

Fox will air live sports on 28 of the next 32 Saturday nights, kicking off with two NASCAR events, followed by a live UFC card on May 5. After another NASCAR race, the network will televise 8 MLB games on consecutive Saturdays through July 7, leading into the All-Star Game on Fox on July 10. Another UFC night will air Aug. 4, and after a four-week hiatus, Pac-12 football comes on board for 12 Saturday night telecasts, interrupted one Saturday night, Oct. 27, for a World Series game. Fox will also televise the Big Ten Championship on December 1 and another UFC event on Dec. 8.

The new sports schedule is aimed at drawing more viewers to Fox on Saturday nights and making the network a target for advertisers, many of whom have written off the low-viewing night on the broadcast networks.

 The MLB studio show will be hosted by Matt Vasgersian, Kevin Millar and Harold Reynolds and will originate from the MLB Network studios in Secaucus, N.J. Fox Sports is partnering with MLB for the show's production and sharing MLB's on-air talent.

Each Saturday night, Fox will televise between three and six MLB games regionally across the country, and the studio show will serve as a hub, showing highlights from the various games on the air during breaks.

Outside of Saturdays, Fox will also televise two NFL preseason games in primetime on Thursday, Aug. 18 and Friday, Aug. 19, along with up to seven National League Championship Series games and seven World Series games on weeknights and Sunday nights in October, and the Pac-12 championship on Friday, Nov. 30.

In considering the plan, Shanks pointed to a UFC telecast Fox aired on a Saturday night last November that drew 5.7 million viewers and a 4.3 18-34 rating, winning the night in both measures. He said another UFC telecast in January averaged a 2.4 18-49 rating, higher than the other three networks combined.

"We want to see why people are not watching television on Saturday nights," Shanks said. "Is it that no one is home on Saturday night or is it that there is nothing on that people want to watch? We are hoping that if we create a beachhead on Saturday night with sports, people will be there to watch."

Shanks said Fox's new deal with the Pac-12 kicks in for this coming season, allowing the network to show multiple games on broadcast in primetime, in addition to the games airing on Fox cable and regional networks. And the deal Fox signed with UFC last summer also permits Fox broadcast network to share telecasts with FX and Fuel.

For Fox, the biggest obstacle came from whether or not they'd be able to schedule the increased number of Saturday night MLB games. Under the current TV rights deal with MLB, most of the games on Fox have Saturday afternoon start times. Shanks said negotiations for moving more games to Saturday night began at the start of last baseball season.

"Last year, we televised three or four Saturday night games, but there's a big difference between that number and eight," he said. "Scheduling these games was no easy feat. We had to have discussions with all 30 teams and they all had to sign off on the scheduling. Some teams don't like to play Saturday night games before Sunday day games. Some teams would rather play at one or four in the afternoon. We needed a consensus. It took almost all of last baseball season to come up with it."

Beyond the necessary diligence, Fox's decision to replace its Saturday night entertainment programming with sports was considered a no-brainer. Long-running reality series Cops was averaging only 3.8 million viewers on the night with a 1.3 18-49 rating. Plus, the subject matter wasn't necessarily a huge Saturday night draw for advertisers. Fox tried Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony's entertainment competition show Q'Viva recently, but the show has tanked, averaging only 2 million viewers and a 0.7 18-49 rating.

The other broadcast networks, which generally air repeats from earlier in the week on Saturday nights, aren't doing much better. Each is averaging 4 million or less on the night and 18-49 ratings between a 0.5 and a 1.1, mimicking cable TV numbers.

The only possible hitch in the plan comes with Fox's telecast of college football competing head-to-head with ABC's own college football Saturday night schedule for the fall. ABC had some success airing those games last season; 10 of them averaged 6.3 million viewers and a 2.1 18-49 rating for the network. And this football competition between the networks can only draw additional viewer interest to the night.

Shanks believes that starting to promote the new live sports night in April, and continuing on an ongoing basis throughout the year across all Fox properties, will get viewers into the Saturday night sports habit. He added that there was unanimity among Fox and News Corp. executives in the decision to go in this direction.

"From Chase Carey [president, COO and deputy chairman of News Corp.] to David Hill [chairman and CEO of Fox Sports Media Group] to Kevin Reilly [Fox Entertainment president], everyone realizes that Fox is a network committed to sports and there could be a business for Fox on Saturday nights with regular sports telecasts," Shanks said, adding that this current plan "is definitely more than just a test."

"We are committed to televising college football for a while, as well as baseball," Shanks said. "When we televised our baseball games last year on Saturday nights, the ratings were 60% higher than our Saturday afternoon telecasts. So we're committed to Saturday nights for baseball, too."

While not wanting to speak for the Fox Sports sales side, Shanks added, "If you're an advertiser looking to reach people tuning in for big, live events each week, Fox will be the place to look to."

As far as selling the new night, Shanks said in some instances it will be just a matter of offering existing advertisers some additional time in the night games. "Most advertisers aren't going to mind paying a bit of a premium to reach the larger audiences," he said. "And of course our sales people will reach out to bring in some new advertisers who might want to reach a larger audience on Saturday night with this type of programming."

So, is this a precursor to a full-fledged national cable sports network? "This isn't a precursor to anything," Shanks said. "This is something we've talked about doing for a long time here. Now that we have all the pieces in place, we can do it."