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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Mark Silverman is president of the Big Ten Network and, apparently, is on a sort of media -- any media -- blitz as the saber-rattling between the BTN and cable operators reaches its peak in the month before D-Day. Exhibit A: this interview at (HT: The Hoosier Report.) Exhibit B: the BTN office reached out to me and asked if I would like to have an interview with Silverman.

Uh... yes?

The ensuing scramble to get some sort of recording capability came up empty -- I shake my fist at you, Skype -- and so I spent a lot of time frantically transcribing. Some quotes may not have 100% fidelity as a result, but they all communicate Silverman's intent fairly. Anyway...

I started by reading Mr. Silverman a quote that was highlighted in an earlier editon of UV:

"We're well on our way toward ensuring that roughly half the subscribers to smaller cable systems across the Midwest have better access to their favorite Big Ten schools and teams than anytime in history."
This seemed a worrisome scaling back of ambition, albeit one that could have been taken out of context. Silverman did confirm that the fears generated by that quote were unfounded: “The point was more specifically referring to the smaller companies. By no stretch is that any sort of implication about the larger companies.”

As the conversation progressed, this became clear: the Big Ten is not and has not reduced its goals. They are no more backing down than any of the cable operators are. In fact, when I asked whether there was a backup plan if basic tiers were not possible Silverman repeatedly stated the Big Ten Network is "not deserving of a sports tier" and that they needed to be "sure the network was launched appropriately," then dropped something of a bombshell: if cable operators in the footprint are not willing to put the channel on a basic tier they won't be permitted to carry it at all. This is an all-or-nothing gambit, and this is why Silverman got in contact.
“It means more access. Martin wants to build the school, to build the exposure. The more you can put it on, the more you showcase these universities and make them seen nationally. It's a great exposure tool for the school in general and for the conference.”
(Silverman did confirm that they were way more flexible outside of the footprint, willing to accept placement on sports tiers for a lesser fee than that charged by ESPNU or CSTV. Ironically, if you're in Phoenix you have a better chance at having the channel available than Ann Arbor.)

Said gambit is either brilliant or insane depending on whether it works, a real Schroedinger's cat situation. I don't think I have to convince anyone who reads this blog that having the BTN on basic cable is good for both Michigan fans and the University itself. The more revenue the channel generates, the better positioned the Big Ten is in the ongoing filthy lucre wars between conferences, and, frankly, I'd probably watch the BTN a ton.

One thing that Silverman did convince me of is that the universally used -- for scorn -- comparable, the NFL Network, isn't comparable at all. Despite the fact that the NFL is the King Kong of American sports, their network had eight games all year. The rest of their schedule is like highlights and analysis and, basically, junk. The BTN is going to have multiple football games every week plus a ton of basketball games, and act as an ESPN Classic for the conference. (Except without the suck.) The sheer number of televised events makes it comparable to a Fox Sports Net, not the NFL network. The problem, of course, is that a local FSN has a ton of events guaranteed to be high profile and laser focused on wherever it's distributed; meanwhile a Purdue-Indiana football game may not be of extreme interest in Wisconsin or Michigan. Silverman acknowleges this:
“There's a lot of confusion because there's not an exact comparable, but if you look at local and regional networks – most of which are owned by Comcast – and it's significantly less. None of their networks are on a sports tier.”
This is true. A brief listing of Comcast-owned RSNs:
  • Comcast Sports Chicago: $3.75
  • Comcast Sports Philadelphia: $3.10
  • Comcast Sports Mid-Atlantic: $2.50
  • Comcast Sports Northwest: $2.00
  • Sportsnet NY (Time Warner -- Mets): $1.80
All of these channels are on expanded basic, as are Versus, the Golf Channel (THE GOLF CHANNEL), and something called CSS Sports, a southeastern channel whose main attraction is single-A baseball and SEC games... on tape delay. That is in six million homes, about what the Big Ten Network's projected footprint is. The "Northwest" edition of Comcast Sports is especially egregious because their entire programming lineup is 50 Blazers games. That's it. Evidently Comcast doesn't care about the "Blazers tax" they're imposing on Oregon, nor the "Tape Delayed SEC tax" on the southeast or the "Frickin' Golf And Not Even Interesting Golf tax" currently being deployed on virtually everyone.

The Big Ten Network's widely reported $1.10 -- a number Silverman said was "probably ballpark" but, oddly, one that he'd "never confirmed" -- doesn't seem out of whack at all in relation to those numbers. Sure, it's probably not worth anywhere near what channels full of NBA/MLB/NHL games are, but they aren't asking for a price near that, and they are providing everything they have at the basic carriage price:
“There's two networks, an HD network and a regular one, a VOD [video on demand -ed] one, and all these overflow channels that we're offering for free. Comcast is going to get a ton of new HD subscribers because all these new games are on that weren't in HD."
(It is possible this is SOP for cable networks and this is not really a point in their favor, though I do think the HD point is cromulent.) Silverman made it clear that the BTN wasn't married to $1.10, but if cable operators were going to stall on placement on basic cable there would be no discussion:
"If they said 'it's on basic,' then we're off to the races. I have to believe it's posturing. I can't believe they're going to hang their hat on that. You can't even have a legitimate conversation on price until you agree on what level of service you're talking about.”
At some point he asked me what I thought -- hey, who's doing the interview here? -- and I said I felt like a pawn, then accidentally got off a pithy quote: "it seems like your leverage is our outrage." It does feel like we fans are caught in a Mexican standoff, except both guns are pointed at our collective head. And instead of a gun we have a rubber chicken. Any trigger-pulling will be a mutual act of our two antagonists, but Comcast's rife hypocrisy shouldn't be obscured by the Big Ten's PR-deaf commissioner.

Will the trigger get pulled? Don't know. Neither does Silverman:
"It's going to go on for a while there. We hope to convince them to carry it on a basic level. I do think we'll get it on the air. But... I don't know. We definitely have some work ahead of us."
Hockey Aside: I asked what the hockey coverage was looking like, and he said there would be "ten to fifteen games" on the network this fall and that they would be "above and beyond" the current coverage provided... probably. Obviously hockey isn't A-1 on his priority list, so he wasn't 100% up to date on their projected coverage. Since Minnesota and (I think) Wisconsin have very good TV packages with their local Fox Sports affiliates I assume most of those would be Michigan/Michigan State/Ohio State games. Hopefully some will be, you know, on the road.


Locutus of Suburbia said...

Ironically, if you're in Phoenix you have a better chance at having the channel available than Ann Arbor.

Yay! I knew there was an upside to living in this dustbowl.

Anonymous said...

The HD package will embiggen the entire deal for a cromulent selling point for the Big TelevenNet