Why the Big Ten Network Won't Bully Cable Systems or Fans

Back when all television was free to consumers, there was a lot less of it. But television still was powerful enough to hook us on football, and you know what the man says: You have to buy the new

Sep 5, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Jerry Dowling

Back when all television was free to consumers, there was a lot less of it. But television still was powerful enough to hook us on football, and you know what the man says: You have to buy the new and improved one.

The change has come along slowly. Paid cable and satellite services sprouted in the 1970s, and cable became an part of everyday life by the mid-1980s. The paid services provided ever more games to watch, but at more than one price. In addition to paying for the extra service, consumers found that much of the programming formerly available for free now could be obtained only for a cost.

Just in the past few years, childhood staples of free TV viewing like the local ball club's games or Monday Night Football have moved almost entirely over to the pay side. The changes happened so subtly that it didn't really matter to most consumers, who already subscribed to pay services anyway.

We all curse our providers before and after we pay them, but hardly anyone really gets by without cable. Virtually without exception, every sports fan without cable seeks a TV outside the home at some point.

Pay TV is here to stay, and the only remaining question is whether to pay the cable company or the sports bar.

Sports promoters are loving pay TV, marketing their out-of-town games on premium subscription tiers. But every now and then an entity comes to the television marketplace too full of itself, and it pays with an embarrassing struggle for its new network.

The Big Ten is the first major college conference to take the plunge, having launched the Big Ten Network Aug. 31. To date, the distribution has not gone smoothly.

Negotiations with cable providers have led to public feuding with Time-Warner and Comcast. Of three cable providers in Columbus, home of Ohio State University, only Insight reached an agreement with the Big Ten Network in time for its exclusive telecast of the Buckeyes' opener on Sept. 1.

The news upset Ohio State fans, many of whom have grown used to seeing all the games on television and now couldn't see the 2007 opener from home. The Big Ten Network, much like the NFL Network, seems to believe enough of these outrages will force the cable companies to succumb under public pressure. It's a naive strategy, based on recent events, and it almost certainly will backfire.

Generally, sports fans are conditioned and willing to pay for the goods — but they're not conditioned or willing to listen sympathetically when a sports promoter makes the games unavailable over some phony principle. It's laughable for the NFL Network or the Big Ten Network to say the cable companies shouldn't pass their subscription costs on to customers when that's exactly the kind of process that makes the economic world go around.

The Big Ten Network is taking the same posture that's worked so poorly for the NFL Network, which showcases nothing but the most popular game in America and still can't claim more than 44 million homes after four years. The Big Ten Network, which launched in 18 million homes, insists that cable companies place it on basic tiers, while the cable companies want to put it on digital tiers.

If the Big Ten Network were to go on the digital tiers, subscribers generally would receive it as part of a sports channel package, for which they pay about $5 per month. If the network goes basic, then cable operators would pay $1.10 for every subscriber who receives service within the Big Ten states. The price is exorbitant compared with other basic offerings.

Industry research firm SNL Kagan, as quoted in The New York Times, puts the cost per cable customer at 49 cents for USA Network, 44 cents for CNN and 41 cents for Nickelodeon. The basic tier channels of the home shopping stripe are even cheaper.

Basic channels don't go basic because they're high in quality and add up to a universal window. Basic channels are basic because they're cheap.

The one exception is ESPN, and don't think for a minute that the cable operators are happy about it. According to The Wall Street Journal, cable executives believe Steve Bornstein, then head of ESPN, jacked up the rates for his cable sports giant to a run-away leader $2.93 per subscriber per month after paying big-time fees to carry NFL games. Bornstein now runs the NFL Network, which can't come to terms with Time-Warner or Comcast.

When American sports fans are pushed too far by these impasses, they don't fool much with the sports promoters or the cable operators. The fans go to the government, and the government handles it.

Last December, Rutgers went to the Texas Bowl, for which the NFL Network held the television rights. Millions of fans in Rutgers' home area of New York and New Jersey without NFL Network would have missed the game, but Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) very strongly urged the NFL Network and the cable companies to somehow put the game on the air. Ultimately, the fans got what they wanted, which was the Rutgers game, but not more than a week of the NFL Network.

The cable companies won't roll over for the NFL and Big Ten networks because the other major conferences will want the same deal when they launch and, according to The Wall Street Journal, about 20 percent of an average subscriber's standard cable bill already covers sports programming.

It's likely that only government intervention will make the NFL and Big Ten networks widely available, and that remains to be seen. Until then, their absence is no kind of real hardship or crisis for fans. In times of need, a sports fan can always find a sports bar and call it an outing.