There has been a lot said and written about the Big Ten Network (BTN) the past five months. Since it officially launched at the end of August, Ohio State fans have witnessed a public negotiation between the Network and many of the larger cable companies, including Time Warner in Ohio and Comcast, which is the largest cable provider in the Big Ten eight-state region.
The goal of The Ohio State University Department of Athletics and the Big Ten Conference is to provide our many fans across the country the opportunity to see more Big Ten athletics events than ever before, and to provide that service at no extra charge to the consumer.
Three Ohio State football games have already been televised by the Big Ten Network, and this week’s Conference showdown against Wisconsin also will be carried on the Network. During the rapidly approaching men’s basketball season, at least 15 Ohio State games will be televised on the Network. This fall, a total of 16 Ohio State Olympic Sports, not counting Big Ten Championships, will be televised by the Big Ten Network. This year, alone, the BTN will televise 400 live events, including 41 football games and 140 men’s basketball games.
The Big Ten Network also will carry women’s basketball, men’s hockey and many of our other sports including softball and baseball. It also will televise all the Big Ten Championships, coaches’ shows in both football and basketball and an extensive array of Big Ten “Classic” events, including past bowl games. When the Big Ten Network achieves its desired level of distribution, it will be a tremendous recruiting tool both academically and athletically for all eleven Big Ten universities.
Many Ohio State fans already enjoy the Big Ten Network. Through partnerships with DirecTV, Dish Network, AT&T U-Verse and more than 150 cable operators, the Big Ten Network reaches over 30 million homes. That figure represents the largest audience for any network in cable television history at such an early stage. All of these agreements call for the Network to be carried on the expanded basic level of service. Right here in Central Ohio, Buckeye fans can view Ohio State games on DirecTV, Dish and AT &T, as well as two of the three cable systems WOW and Insight.
Unfortunately, because of the current stalemate that exists between the Big Ten Network and four of the larger cable companies, including Time Warner, there are still many Ohio State fans that are not able to see the Network. At issue is the level of carriage. The Big Ten Network believes the Network should be shown on basic standard cable and available to our fans at no additional cost. Time Warner and the other three large cable companies insist on placing the Big Ten Network on a sports tier, which would result in a significant price increase to the consumer. That model simply does not work for the Big Ten Network.
Here is why:
* The conference is committed to broad distribution of the BTN’s programming. Only 4% of households currently have what would be considered a “sports tier.” * The Big Ten believes that no one within the Big Ten footprint should have to subscribe to a higher level of service and pay an extra $60 a year (if you already have digital cable) to $200 a year (if you do not have digital cable and need to upgrade) to see the BTN. A sports tier typically costs $4.99 or more per month and requires a digital level of service.
* The programming on the BTN has broad appeal within the Big Ten footprint and deserves to be broadly distributed. BTN’s ratings for its Saturday football games have consistently ranked among the top-12 programs among all cable programs across all networks.
* Finally, the Big Ten Conference has committed to an unprecedented level of coverage of Big Ten events. The cost structure of producing 400 live events, almost all in high definition, requires an ability to sell advertising and generate revenue that a sports tier would be unable to provide. The network would not be able to exist on a sports tier. Comcast, which serves much of the Big Ten area, knows this, given that of the 11 sports networks it owns, none is on a sports tier.
Although the BTN is the first network of its kind at the major conference level, it is very similar to other regional sports network (commonly known as “RSN’s,” such as Fox Sports Net, or Comcast SportsNet Chicago). Virtually all regional sports networks are carried on expanded basic cable and not a “sports tier.” In Ohio, Sports Time Ohio and Fox Sports Network are part of the basic package offered by Time Warner.
Both Time Warner and Comcast have said that the Big Ten Network is carrying only “second tier” games. Saturday’s game against the Badgers is anything but “second tier” as the Big Ten race reaches a crescendo. The cable companies also have suggested there doesn’t seem to be a high demand from their subscribers for the Network. Fan reaction would seem to indicate otherwise.
The cable companies have said they do not want to charge all subscribers for the Big Ten Network and that by putting it on a sports tier only those fans who really want the BTN would have to pay for it. That argument seems ill conceived. Subscribers who currently have basic expanded cable receive somewhere between 50 and 70 channels for a set fee and have no choice of which channels they are receiving. Additionally, only a few of those channels are local. The Big Ten Network is local and certainly belongs in the basic package.. Sports tiers, on the other hand, mean a significant increase in costs to the subscriber and deny those fans who cannot afford it, the opportunity to see their favorite Big Ten teams play. If the 150 cable companies that currently carry the Big Ten Network can find room for it on their basic expanded package, why can’t the larger carriers?
The Big Ten Network is also more than just sports – it is really an extension of our schools, with 660 hours of campus programming and a dedication to no alcohol advertising and event-equity for men’s and women’s sports. We believe the network is totally in line with the values of our conference, institutions and fans.
It is true that not everyone will be interested in every game or every program on the BTN – just as not everyone is interested in the other channels that are common to expanded basic cable. The cable industry has decided that “bundling” channels is the best way to offer consumers the widest possible variety at the best price. In the Big Ten footprint, the Big Ten Network should be one of those channels, right along with the jewelry channel, the food channel, the speed channel, and other channels commonly found on expanded basic.
The larger cable companies have said it is too expensive to bring the Big Ten Network to their customers, but the network’s rate, specific to the Midwest, is a third of what the market has determined is appropriate for regional sports networks. And, these sports networks are all carried on expanded basic. The cost to operators everywhere else is less than at least 65 other national networks including CNN, TBS, TNT, Lifetime, Oxygen, A&E and just about any other station that appears on your area’s basic cable package.
Those same cable companies also allege that “most” of these games were on free TV last year, so the Big Ten is really taking those games away from the fans. That is not true. Ohio State had four football games on cable last year and three the previous year. Additionally, many of the Buckeyes’ basketball games were on ESPN or ESPN2 and were not free, but part of the monthly cable bill subscribers pay to receive ESPN. Even the games carried by ESPN Plus were built into your cable bill.
Of course, economics are at the heart of this dispute. The Big Ten member universities do not apologize for the fact that the combined revenue stream to the conference for the two new network contracts (that is the new ABC/ESPN and BTN arrangements) exceeds the previous stand-alone contract with ABC/ESPN. The revenues generated from each of the broadcast contracts are critical for the long-term financial stability and comprehensiveness of the conference athletic programs. At Ohio State, the Department of Athletics is completely self-supporting and is charged with continued academic and athletic excellence without utilizing core university resources or state funding that must be directed to education and research. The money received from the Big Ten Network is absolutely essential to its continued growth and commitment to excellence.
The Big Ten Conference is committed to the broadest possible distribution of the Big Ten Network, but needs the cooperation of the cable companies to make that dream a reality.