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Game Six could be one of the greatest many never saw, illustrating baseball’s struggles in fast-paced media market

For those used to the sometimes sleepy pace of professional baseball, Thursday night’s World Series game was a jarring, exciting example of just how amazing this sport can be on television.

An epic battle loomed for the Texas Rangers, fighting for their first title in team history. But the St. Louis Cardinals refused to give up, with third baseman David Freese smacking a home run in the 11th inning for a hard-fought victory.

In the kind of irony only our fractured media universe can produce, many TV viewers didn’t see any of this action. Because this World Series was on track ratings-wise to be one of the least-watched in history, with an average of just 8.3 percent of U.S. homes tuning in (not including Thursday’s ratings), according to the Boston Herald.

As a comparison, in the week on Oct. 17, seven TV shows scored better ratings than that average, including CBS’ NCIS and ABC’s Dancing with the Stars.

The result is a universe where the biggest games in baseball score ratings no better than a really popular NCIS: Los Angeles episode. It’s not the end of the world, but it is a new normal for baseball – where its most exciting matchups compete in a sea of very popular TV entertainment for that evening or that TV season.

This is not something we are used to seeing in our top-tier professional sports contests. Marketed to the extreme, major sports championships are heralded as world-stopping events; showcases where history might be made and even casual fans are treated as heretics for missing out.

Certainly, you could make that argument for Thursday’s game, which some sports writers were calling one of the most exciting in sports history.

Its end was example enough: in the ninth inning, Freese nailed a triple to tie the score and go to extra innings, followed by two more runs from the Rangers and the Cards, topped by Freese’s heroics in the 11th inning to finish it off.

If every baseball game unfolded like this, I’m betting nitpickers like myself wouldn’t be grousing about the TV ratings for a sport once known as “America’s pastime.”

The reasons for this dip in viewing are elemental. Baseball not longer fits the pulse of the modern media consumer.

We’ve become an attention-deficited nation, increasingly used to surfing multiple media streams for the latest shocking video, news update, sitcom joke or jarring dramatic image.

Small wonder the online interfaces for the NBA and the NCAA March Madness basketball championships have proven so popular with hardcore fans. At the touch of a button, users can flit from game to game, catching highlights picked out by expert editors and migrating to the contests with the most action at will.

Football follows that pace more closely, with fewer games (which means each contest has higher stakes), more excitement in each play (somebody’s getting hit or getting a pass or both) and games that last an average three hours. The Wall Street Journal also found last year that the average football telecast spends 56 percent of its time showing replays of the most crucial plays, increasing the amount of time viewers see action.

Compare that to the pace of most evenly-matched baseball games, which often come down to drawn-out duels between pitchers skilled at limiting runs and aggressive hitters winging for the fences. Find enough games won by good pitching – which translates to lots of strikeouts and low scores – and it’s easy to see how casual or younger fans might wait for the next-day highlights on ESPN or their online sports news outlet of choice.

The New York Times took note of this Tuesday, in a story pointing out that a blow out victory by the New Orleans Saints over the winless Indianapolis Colts on NBC’s Sunday Night Football drew more young viewers than another exciting World Series game on Fox.

According to the Times, the baseball game still drew more viewers overall, with a huge rating among men over age 50, providing a stark look at the Series’ TV future.

Exciting as Thursday’s game was, it also stood as a telling example of how TV-unfriendly baseball has become, with Freese’s extra-inning finale fireworks coming after 12:30 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, when many viewers have headed for bed.

(Baseball fan and NBC anchor Brian Williams, co-hosting the Today show Friday morning, even took a little time to complain about trying to see the game’s historic finish on a night when he needed an early bedtime).

Expect ratings to rebound a bit tonight, thanks to word spreading about Thursday’s amazing game and the natural tendency for the World Series to increase viewership as it adds games and the competition heats up.

But that rebound won’t counter the simple fact that today’s on demand consumer culture is leaving even the biggest baseball broadcasts behind.

The only question left, is whether broadcasters and Major League Baseball can to anything to reverse it.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed.

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