Watching the so-called negotiations between the new Big Ten Network and cable TV giant Comcast is like watching a poker game between a seasoned card shark and Andy Hardy.
There is fresh-faced Andy (a forever young, baby-faced Mickey Rooney), holding a pair of three’s, ever-optimistic that, by golly, he’s gonna win this one and bring home a pot of money. And on the other side of the table sits Comcast, holding a royal flush and fully aware that Andy is holding nothing but a pair of three’s. Andy can put on his best poker face all day and he’s not going to fool the old pro.
That’s how we see the situation between BTN and Comcast. As this game is being played now, though, there really isn’t any winner. Comcast — which controls the Midwest cable audience the Big Ten Network needs — has offered to place BTN on its sports tier of programming, where the NFL and NBA networks, and various other specialized sports channels, now reside. It costs extra to get this tier of service, but only those who really like some or all of the channels on it have to pay for it.
It seems pretty logical to us that a sports tier is an appropriate place for a new, specialized sports network like the Big Ten Network. After all, the NFL is the most popular sports entity in the country, and its network resides on the sports tier.
The Big Ten Network, however, does not share our logic. It argues that BTN is not a specialty sports channel to Midwest cable customers. It’s a channel that the vast majority of Comcast’s customers in the Midwest will want. Therefore, says the Big Ten Network, it should be on the expanded basic tier — alongside ESPN, Nickelodeon and many other channels now considered standard on any cable system.
If Comcast won’t put the network on its most popular level of service, it can’t have it at all.
BTN started negotiations asking Comcast for $1.10 per subscriber. That figure has since been reduced, though neither side will reveal where it stands now. Regardless, that cost eventually would be passed on to subscribers in the form of a rate increase. This, we think, would amount to a Big Ten tax on the vast majority of Comcast customers, whether or not they ever would watch the Big Ten Network.
Some observers, including the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board, have said this is a classic example of the need for ala carte programming, in which customers pick only the channels they want and pay only for those channels. We’re not so sure that would ever work. Sure, ESPN charges $3 a customer per month for large cable systems to carry its programming. But that’s a gigantic quantity discount given to systems that can provide millions of potential viewers. Without an overhaul of federal telecommunications policy and a major shift by the Federal Communications Commission, we doubt ala carte pricing would be the bargain many people envision.
As things stand now, The Big Ten Network is beginning its second day on the air without a cable TV contract to the biggest provider for its core audience. It’s holding a pair of three’s at this poker table. Comcast, meanwhile, has made a perfectly reasonable offer that will get BTN to those who most want it. Comcast has little to lose short of answering some phone calls from disappointed customers.
At the end of his movies, Andy Hardy always did the right thing, usually learning a valuable lesson from his dad, Judge Hardy, in the process. In this case, he’d throw in his weak hand and take the card shark’s offer to split the chips.
Editorial: Big Ten Network holding a weak hand in game with Comcast
Aug 31, 2007 at 12:01 AM Aug 31, 2007 at 4:50 AM