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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Hi. This is weird for me, as it is for you, I'm sure, but Bill Connors, who you may remember from such quotes as...

"It's a single-digit percentage who view [the BTN] as an absolute must-have. That's why the best landing place is on a sports tier."
"In our mind, all we care about is getting content that customers want, at the right price. They cannot say that 100 percent of customers want to be forced to watch the Big Ten Network."
...or someone at Comcast saw the Silverman interview and wanted to give their side of the story. So there was a second unexpected conversation with an oft-agitated executive during which I typed frantically.

A clarification is in order here: I don't know if you would really call this “journalism.” These interviews didn't seem like standard ask-response-ask thing where the most cutting thing you can do is get in a really pertinent followup. They were conversations. Dialogues, if you will. And the resulting piece here is fair (I hope) but not neutral. I have opinions on these things and would like to offer them to you. As for sides... there are three sides in this conflict: The Big Ten, Comcast, and us. I'm with us. A general disclaimer then: I would like to get the Big Ten Network, personally, and get it on basic cable. I also wouldn't mind if it cost $1.10. I wouldn't mind if it cost more than ESPN, because the benefit to the athletic departments would mostly be coming out of the pockets of people who aren't me. So that's where I'm coming from.

SO THE BIG CONFLICT HERE is over placement and price. Mark Silverman, president of the Big Ten Network, said that if cable carriers in the footprint did not put the Big Ten Network in their expanded basic pacakge, they wouldn't be permitted to carry the channel at all, and that the cable networks had been unresponsive about that placement. Therefore there was hardly anything to discuss. Connors confirmed this position, albeit with a quaifier:
"Clearly, that's their public position on this. So it's been hard to make any progress in negotiations. They've been pretty adamant.”
"Public": the qualifier, the little bit of snark that might send Jim Delany into apoplexy. Recursion: both sides accuse each other of posturing; both sides are right; accusations of posturing are also posturing.

One of the frustrations in this odd experience of talking with these guys for extended periods of time was getting them off their talking points and to delve into some specifics. Anyone who's seen a presidential debate knows the feeling of being talked sort of... at. This isn't a Comcast or BTN thing, it's a general dealing with the media (and, more generally, public perception) thing, where repetition is the holy grail of remembrance. Head On. Apply directly to the forehead. The conversations, both of them, often seemed circular as the (marginal) interviewee wrangled the conversation back around to their desired topics. Maybe this is old hat to grizzled press-hat wearing journos, but, um, not guilty.

ANYWAY, A FREQUENT TOPIC of discussion was that the Big Ten was the anti-fan party here, with their insistence on a basic tier and the removal of all this content that was in the public domain – or at least the syndicated domain – into its own proprietary network. Comcast launched Comcast Local, a marginal RSN with things like baseball, Olympic sports, MAC (and less appealing) football, and Michigan hockey (sadly, road games remain infrequent) a couple years ago, and the network feels a little peeved that the groundwork they laid has been rendered inert, or at least weakened, by the upstart:
“All the Olympic sports, guess who covered those before at zero burden to customers on Comcast Local? We've gotten notes from coaches that say 'thanks, this helps recruiting.' But not once have received any acknowledgement from the Big Ten office.”
I kind of doubt that Comcast was doing this out of the kindness of their heart, but I've watched Comcast Local and its commercials and can't believe it was actually making any money.

When the BTN-mentioned Blazers network came up, Connors challenged the Big Ten to do what it was by permitting placement on a sports tier “if they want to compare themselves to other networks.” This was a frequent theme: the Big Ten's demands were unreasonable and only served their own selfish purposes, which put Comcast in a tough position:
“That's the awkward part of this. Part of my job is to negotiate deals with emerging networks. What's unique about this is there hasn't been a network that's demanded to be on basic. An increasing number go to digital.”
Connors insisted that if the sports tier was greenlighted by the Big Ten, things would be smooth sailing:
"I'll add that channel tomorrow if they give me the launch codes tomorrow. We'll put the fan first, as corny as that sounds."
Connors' focus on the Big Ten's threat to execute, essentially, a denial-of-service attack on their own fans is something I don't think anyone has lost sight of. Connors is correct when he derides the BTN an attempt to “take five million dollars worth of content and charge Comcast 300 million for it over five years," although that content's worth whatever people will pay for it.

But only the endearingly na├»ve would expect anything else from either party. The Big Ten's leverage lies in that segment of the fanbase willing to either switch providers or get a sports tier in order to acquire the channel; just saying “okey-dokey” to placement there would be bringing a sword to a gunfight.

LET'S TALK NUMBERS. One of the more interesting avenues of discussion centered on one of the Big Ten Network's very favorite competitor/analog. We talked about CSS, the southern network that runs 40s in 4.2 and is on basic cable across a wide swath of SEC country. The Big Ten Network loves that as a comparable regional sports network that Comcast happens to own that coincidentally happens to get widespread distribution and has, at least on the surface, way less compelling content.

Facts About CSS:
  • CSS does have live sports: about 46 football games and 180-some basketball games
  • About 10% of the football games involve an SEC or ACC team (these are usually the Michigan-Appalachian State equivalents); 20-30% of the basketball games do. (Ditto, though sometimes they get higher quality contests if you think a Vanderbilt-Michigan game – which a friend of mine saw on CSS once – counts as higher quality. If it was Ellerbe-era, probably not.) The rest are from Conference USA or Sun Belt or the local D-I basketball-only
  • CSS content is not necessarily exclusive; local syndication is possible. Generally the SEC and ACC games get distributed locally.
  • CSS costs “less than 30 cents” per subscriber. I took this to mean “somewhere from 25 to 29 cents,” as if it was less than 25 he probably would have said “less than 25 cents.”
One thing that got the many-repetitions treatment: a primary reason CSS occupies its basic cable slot is its age:
“CSS was launched nine years ago. If that would have come out of the ground in 2007, there's no one who would say that should be on expanded basic. And it's something that might move to a digital tier at some point in the future.”

“When CSS came out of the ground in 1998 we we're still trying to fill eighty channels.”
Connors then said that he envisioned a future where all sports channels migrate to their own tiers and the idea of a basic cable sports network evaporates. I didn't mention this in to Connors because it didn't occur to me at the time, but it's hard to swallow that when my current package has Versus – not that I want it to go away, Vive le Tour – Speed, and the Golf Network. Those seem clearly less relevant and important to people in the BTN footprint than the Big Ten Network.

So, yeah this line of argument didn't really fly with me. Clearly there are some regional sports networks that cable companies have acceded to on their basic tiers because of the importance of their content to carriers. Heck, when Fox bought DirectTV regional sports networks got a special arbitration process so Rupert Murdoch couldn't deny access to other content providers that wanted to carry this critical content. (Critical in an “important to the consuming public” fashion, not a “helps Darfur” fashion.) So it's a matter of deciding whether the BTN is closer to whatever your local carrier of MLB/NHL/NBA games is or to something like the NFL Network or NBA TV. It obviously exists in a gray area between the two. It's not a national item of intermittent interest like the latter; it's not a laser-focused must-have that would cause mass defections if it was not present.

The Big Ten Network misrepresented CSS to me, and I'm glad Connors clarified to me that the network was not the 1987 Iron Bowl repeating 24 hours a day, but I think Comcast tried to do the same thing. I had to wrangle the percentages of SEC/ACC teams featured out of Connors, as the original phrasing was something like “45 football games including SEC and ACC games,” but... like...four or five? I made the point that a few SEC or ACC games interspersed among Conference USA and Sun Belt (boo!) games didn't make for a good comparison here; the Big Ten Network clearly has a more compelling programming lineup. So it was something of a shock to me when I asked for a clarification on what Comcast considered to be a non-burdensome price to consumers, and got this response:
“On aggregate, we value this channel at between 8 and 25 cents.”
Yikes. I never really got a perspective on this number, though I tried. It seems preposterously low if it's meant to be a per-subscriber cost in the Big Ten footprint. I asked if that was an in-footprint number and got an assent; I still think that this is a miscommunication of some variety. I pressed on the CSS-BTN comparison, since it seems totally unreasonable to offer less for a network with much more interesting content, but this was clearly an uncomfortable part of the conversation and didn't get a rationale behind that beyond...
"The broader distribution makes the carrying costs lower. The only way for a channel to get widely distributed usually is if it proves itself."
...which did not explain the gap.

WHERE IS THIS HEADED? Connors did say that he was sure that there would be “expedited” negotiations over the next couple weeks where parties from both sides lock themselves in a room and fight to the death. Both Silverman and Connors, when pressed, claimed to be “optimistic” that a deal would get done – that word precisely from both of them – but based that optimism mostly on the belief that the other party was weak like Ukraine and would fold. Connors, when asked if basic is a possibility given some Big Ten price flexibility:
No, I can't see it on basic this fall. I won't say there's no scenario on basic. If the rate's at a number that isn't a burden to consumers...
The implication there was that the two parties were far apart on what constitutes a "burden" at the moment. Connors, for his part, invoked the idea that Big Ten president's wouldn't stand for the channel's unavailability:
I think there's such an overwhelming, pragmatic argument that is against the currently proposed Big Ten Network. I guarantee university presidents think it's not their goal to charge a fee to every household in Michigan. I guarantee the presidents were never briefed on this. I think that will overcome some of the insanity that's been proposed in the last month and a half. I think it will get placement on a sports tier.
We'll know in a couple weeks.

What strikes me is that both sides here have reached out to all sorts of media, including pissant bloggers, in a fight that's become public in a way that doesn't happen when, say, ESPN Classic gets booted to the high stratosphere, let alone the Food Network or National Geographic or whatever. And this subject acquires more comments and emails than any other save the absolutely true and incontrovertible fact that Notre Dame runs on the souls of babies. That alone indicates to me that both the Big Ten and Comcast have significant interest in getting the channel on in some way or another. I don't think we go into the year without the BTN available, but that's just a hunch, and one biased by hope at that.