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Stadium and Main: June 2008

Monday, June 30, 2008

Comcast and BTN - Out of Market Concerns

Most Comcast customers who follow Big Ten sports breathed a sigh of relief when it was finally announced that the nation's largest cable company would carry the Big Ten Network (BTN) this fall. Being an OCD "details type," I immediately wondered what the terms of the deal entailed. The press release was fairly vague, since (in my opinion) the most important thing about the BTN is having access to all of its "overflow" feeds, so you can see all of the games (without having to worry about whether you'll receive your team's game). This is especially important for me, since I live in Washington, DC. So if I only get one BTN channel, my "regional coverage" might be the BTN Game of the Week (which may or may not include Michigan), or worse yet, Penn State (since they're the closest geographically). This short blurb from the Baltimore Sun makes it sound like the BTN will be available on Comcast's Sports Entertainment Package in cities like Baltimore (stated), DC, NYC, etc. (inferred), which was expected. But what about those overflow feeds?!

So I tried to do the impossible: Get my issue on the books, and see if a Comcast employee in the Washington, DC area would actually respond to (and, more importantly, understand) my questions. It appears they did, since I didn't get a computer-generated response. But their response leaves more ambiguity than I was hoping for. Here it is, with names/numbers redacted. For what it's worth (nothing), it comes from a "higher up" employee who is responsible for the DC area:
Your e-mail was forwarded to me and I wanted to address your concerns as best as I could, now that we have announced our plans to carry the Big Ten Network. In terms of our carrying multiple games being played at the same time, I am told by our Marketing Department that --

"It is our understanding that each week, BTN will recommend a 'primary' game that will appear on BTN, and that game might vary by market. And you are correct; there may be one or more other games going on at the same time. We plan to review this situation week by week, and hope to bring our customers as many of these extra games as possible, based on level of interest and available channel capacity. BTN has told us that these details of this opportunity will not be available until August, and that they are quite subject to change, week to week, based on the game selections by ESPN, ABC and NBC."
A few thoughts:

- They don't come out and say they'll only have one feed, but judging by the email's tone, I'd be shocked if they plan on having all feeds. They specifically mention Comcast's "available channel capacity" (which is low, thanks to terrible planning and failure to implement new technology like Switched Digital Video). That's a bad sign, since that seems to be Comcast's second most common generic excuse when they don't want to carry a channel (lack of demand being the first, but we've already solved that one - kind of).

- About demand, or, "level of interest," as they put it. My most blunt response to this is that I can assure them that there will be 100 times more interest in Illinois @ Northwestern (which, admittedly, is a fairly lame game) than there will be in Lehigh @ Yale. Why does Lehigh-Yale matter in this discussion? Because that's the type of game that is often shown (on tape delay or replay, no less) on one of the three Fox College Sports (FCS) channels that Comcast has on its Sports Entertainment Package. How can they give us three channels of that rubbish, mixed in with a decent Big 12 or Pac-10 game now and then, and tell us that we only need one feed of the BTN? Seeing that the crappy FCS channels are owned by the BTN's partner (Fox), it would be painfully ironic if we were subjected to three channels of Stony Brook @ Hofstra, Southern Illinois @ Indiana State, and Youngstown State @ Northern Iowa while being left with only one BTN game every Saturday afternoon. I take that back - that would just be painful.

- Misinformation, as usual. The email makes it seem like BTN will have some say as to whether Comcast can show certain games (and when/where). But that's confusing the issue. The fact is that the BTN wants every feed to be available on every system in every home in America. They aren't going to dissuade Comcast from adding a 4th or 5th feed so fans can see every game, they're going to encourage that. But Comcast, as expected, isn't stating it that way. They write, "BTN has told us that these details of this opportunity will not be available until August," and they bring in irrelevant networks (ABC, ESPN, NBC) to blur the picture. Comcast, I'll save you the suspense and make things clear for you: You have the "opportunity" to add every BTN overflow channel so your customers can have access to every Big Ten Network game (just like DirecTV, Dish Network, and AT&T customers have)... do it! Thanks!

So in case you haven't realized it yet: If you're a Michigan fan with Comcast, living outside of Michigan, you might want to contact Comcast about their plans for the overflow feeds in your area. If you live in NYC or San Francisco, any and all overflows will likely be on the Sports Tier. If you live in Ohio, you might get an overflow or two on a Digital Tier. But call up and find out for yourself, and let Comcast know that demand exists for multiple feeds of the BTN. Sure, your requests and inquiries might not do any good, but considering the subscriber and stock hits they took last fall, it might get their attention. The BTN cost Comcast a fair amount of money last year, whether they want to admit it or not. Let's hope they're smart enough to realize that one BTN feed just won't cut it for out of market fans (or any Big Ten fan, for that matter).

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