Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Big Ten Network and Comcast, together at last?

With the exception of a few early-round Big Ten Tournament games, there won't be another football or basketball game on the BTN for another six months. I don't know whether the timing is unfortunate or somehow related to the end of the BTN's coverage of those sports, but Inside the Hall passes on this article about an in-the-works deal between the BTN and its longtime nemesis Comcast. It's long been speculated that when Comcast made a move, all the other providers would fall in line, so this is a big deal if true. The basics:

Comcast agreed to launch the conference network on expanded basic through most of the Big Ten Conference’s eight-state region, as much as 94 percent of it, according to one source. Previously, Comcast was adamant against launching on expanded basic to a such a wide area. Meanwhile, Big Ten Network relaxed its demand to launch the channel on expanded basic everywhere in the eight-state market. The channel will allow Comcast the flexibility to place it on digital basic in various markets within the footprint, including Philadelphia.

BTN made a similar concession with Insight, which allowed the cable operator to launch it on digital basic in Louisville, Ky., on the outskirts of what BTN originally considered its inner core market.

I do disagree with one aspect of ITH's discussion:
While it looks like Comcast is getting the win — after all, the Big Ten Network’s original pitch was that it deserved to be alongside ESPN and Comcast Sports Net as basic programming for everyone — the bottom line is that IU fans will be able to see games they’ve missed this year. That’s no doubt a good thing, even if you’re stuck paying for 12 or 14 extra channels you’ll never use once.
I think it's exactly the opposite. As I said at ITH in comments, it's really hard to know who won and who lost. We don't know about the money and we don't know what the parties actually were willing to live with in the end. For instance, Comcast may have always intended to give in on the tier issue. But it's beyond dispute that this resolution, if as reported, is way, way closer to the BTN's public negotiating position than to Comcast's public position.
First, it's important to understand what "expanded basic" is. When I was a kid, in the days before digital cable, On Demand, MLB Extra Innings, regional sports networks, and the like, there were two types of cable: "basic cable" and premium channels. Everything but HBO, Showtime, and the like were "basic cable." At some point, I think around the early 1990s, the cable companies introduced the notion of expanded basic. So, the point was to put all of the desirable channels on "basic" and all the niche channels on "expanded basic," right? Wrong. The purpose was to make money.
For instance, here's a link to a Comcast channel lineup from somewhere near Chicago, divided in to "basic" and "expanded basic." As you will note, basic cable includes the network affiliates and other local programming, PAX, the Home Shopping Network, QVC, Spanish language stations, public access, C-SPAN, TV Guide, and religious programming. That's it. Expanded basic, on the other hand, includes that channels that most of us consider "cable": ESPN, CNN, Fox News, MTV, Nickelodeon, A&E, Comedy Central, and so on. In other words, the channels that motivate people to buy cable are on expanded basic. If the Comcast deal is as reported, the Big Ten Network will be on par with these channels.
For months, Comcast's position was that the Big Ten Network should be on a digital sports tier everywhere in the country, including within the Big Ten region. As the link indicates, Comcast's sports tier includes the NFL Network, NBA TV, CSTV, and the like. The BTN's position was that it should be on "expanded basic" in the Big Ten region (with ESPN, CNN, etc.) and on the sports tier everywhere else. It sounds like the Big Ten's big compromise is that in some fringes of the Big Ten region, the BTN will be on "digital basic," which apparently is somewhere in between "expanded basic" and the "sports tier." That means that the Big Ten Network is getting what it wanted in 94 percent of the Big Ten region and has reached a compromise, middle ground on the other 6 percent. Comcast is getting what it wanted in zero percent of the Big Ten region. Again, none of us knows enough about Comcast's true, private position to know whether it is a loss for Comcast. But it sure looks like a win for the BTN.
EDIT: Unsurprisingly, Brian was there before I was. He agrees that it looks like Comcast caved, and speculates that the phone line-based services now provided by Verizon and AT&T are having an effect. My anecdotal contribution is that I commute through an old, mostly low-income part of Indianapolis and I see AT&T trucks every day, far more than could be explained by introduction of or modification of telephone service.

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