Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images; Greg Gayne/Fox

If Fox were pushing around Zooey Deschanel for the Yankees, fans might understand. But for Rangers vs. Cardinals?

Last week’s flap over Fox pushing New Girl a few weeks to make way for baseball coverage and super-sized X Factor episodes had the network in the odd position of having to defend a routine annual practice — shuffling around its programs to make room for MLB coverage.

“I’d prefer not to do it, but I feel we have shows that viewers will come back for,” Fox entertainment chief Kevin Reilly tells EW. “We could have peppered New Girl and Raising Hope around the schedule. It felt like ultimately we didn’t want to knock them down by getting them lesser ratings in other time periods. It’s easier to say, ‘It’s off for three weeks and then we’re on for the rest of the year.'”

But given the amount of ratings success Fox has enjoyed with entertainment programs this fall (it’s the only broadcaster to have improved in the adult demo), and considering this year’s World Series yawner match-up, it does raise the question: Is disruptive fall baseball coverage still worth it for Fox?

So far, the six primetime MLB games that have aired on Fox this season have averaged only a 2.0 in the adult demo. That’s 31 percent below the network’s current 2.9 average. Of course, the largest ratings are still to come in the World Series, starting with Game 1 tonight. But while Cardinals vs. Rangers could be fun for dedicated baseball fans, it’s considered unlikely to bring in large numbers of causal viewers that really drive championship sports ratings.

The situation used to be worse. Until 2007, Fox had a larger MLB commitment. But that was back when Fox routinely lost the fourth quarter anyway, when its schedule didn’t really come alive until American Idol and 24 returned in January. “The 28-game package; that was a tough thing to manage,” Reilly said. “It was also a time when Fox was a patchier network.'”

That changed when Fox scaled back the agreement to only carry 14 games (two of which usually air in the afternoon), plus started boasting stronger shows year-round. Now, when Fox is trying to build audiences for New Girl, X Factor, and Terra Nova (the latter two being pricey high-wire endeavors), the last thing you want to see is what happened last week, when a rain delay pushed X Factor off Wednesday night at the last possible minute.

After the preemption, Thursday’s X Factor ratings dipped slightly, then the numbers dipped again when Factor had to air out-of-pattern without promotion on Sunday night in order to get back on track. Tuesday night’s episode largely recovered. “This year things have gotten more complicated,” Reilly said. “To play the mechanics of X Factor, we have to play that around baseball, and the you have a situation of a rain-out or a delay and it becomes a domino effect. It becomes harder to maneuver.”

The thing is, as Reilly also pointed out, when baseball works, it really works. Fox won the fall two years ago when it launched Glee, plus enjoyed sizable ratings from a New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies World Series. Suddenly, instead of being a drag on the ticket, baseball became a promotional platform for the shows it was temporarily replacing. With Glee lower in the ratings this fall, however, the serialized show probably isn’t going to be helped by the interruptions. “Glee is going somewhat through a natural life cycle for [its] third season,” Reilly said. “It’s still a Top 10 show with young women and a Top 20 show overall. I’m very happy with it to be a slightly more mature show. I’d be worried if I watched the show decrease each week with negative buzz.”

The upside, again, is Fox’s shows generate enough buzz on their own to have viewers annoyed in the first place. “We could be sitting here trying to figure out how to get to the press and fan the flames and make people care,” Reilly said. “Other people are going to be moving around in repeats later in the year, and we’re going to be on straight through.”

Fox’s current seven-year deal with the MLB expires in 2013. What do you think the network should do?

For more on Fox’s fall lineup, check out EW’s story in this week’s issue.

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