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Network, cable providers clash on channel placement

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THOMAS J. MILLER
November 2, 2007

The standoff between cable companies and the Big Ten Network is like sumo wrestlers butting heads.


The cable companies, including Charter Communication, say they don’t want the cost of acquiring the college sports channel passed along to all customers. They want to put the Big Ten Network on a separate tier where customers who want it would pay extra for it.


The Big Ten Network responds that there isn’t a channel on cable that is watched by all customers, and that the cost-per-subscriber easily could be covered by local advertising, high-definition packages and video-on-demand.


But at this point, both participants are on the sidelines as the Big Ten football season nears its end, and the basketball season is starting.


Mark Silverman, president of the Big Ten Network, is no rookie in the television business.


Before he agreed to take over the Big Ten Network this summer, he had been general manager and senior vice president of ABC Cable Networks Group since 2004. He ran Lifetime Television, A&E Network and the History Channel, and each made more money in 2005 than they ever.


He also served as general manager of ABC Family Channel from 2003-04.


Silverman said he knew getting the Big Ten Network onto cable wouldn’t be easy, but he was blindsided by the immediate negative response the major cable companies gave the new network.


“I was surprised by how public and nasty it was early on,” Silverman said Thursday afternoon. “I had never seen it to this extent.”


The two major national cable companies, Time Warner and Comcast, and the mainly Midwest-based Charter Communications, have been steadfast in their refusal to put the Big Ten Network on “basic” programming tier.


“We have to appeal to broad-based interests,” said John Miller, director of communications for Charter in Wisconsin.


Miller said that if the Big Ten Network was added to the 70-channel basic tier, the price-per-subscriber the network would charge (reportedly $1.10 per customer) would be the third-highest Charter pays for any of the 70 channels.


Silverman said the $1.10 price always has been negotiable.


Silverman said the Big Ten Network couldn’t make it on a sports tier.


“There’s very little you can do on a sports tier,” Silverman said. “You can’t sell advertising. You can’t exist.”


With Fox Network owning 49 percent of the Big Ten Network, its short-term financial status is solid. Silverman said it has a 20-year deal with the conference.


“When we walked into this, we knew it would take a little while to be financially successful,” Silverman said.


Silverman denied that the BTN is using Saturday’s Wisconsin-Ohio State game to exert extra pressure on cable companies. He said ABC still has the first pick of weekly games, and ABC selected Michigan-Michigan State this week, and the Ohio State-Illinois game for Nov. 10.


After ABC picks, ESPN and the Big Ten Network take turns making the second pick. One of the provisions of the Big Ten Network contract is that each team gets at least one conference game televised.


Ohio State has not been on the Big Ten Network so far. With the season dwindling down, the BTN selected this week’s game to show Ohio State.


With 20 UW basketball games set for the BTN, more non-satellite customers might demand some action.


Miller says he monitors call volume and service cancellations daily. He doesn’t believe Charter will be affected to a point that it will buckle.


Silverman, who said Charter has been the most civil in its negotiations of any of the major cable companies, believes the pressure will cause change.


“How can they say we shouldn’t be on basic cable when there’s food channels and a bicycle channel and all these other channels?” Silverman said.


Stay tuned.



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