Wednesday, August 08, 2007

HSR Field Trip: CDB goes to the BTN Open House

Last week, the Michigan Athletic Department sent out a mass mail announcing that there would be an Open House at the Junge Family Champions Center with regard to the launch of the Big Ten Network. Since I have nothing but time during the summer, and probably won't get another legitimate chance to see the Junge Family Champions Center, I decided to go. I present to you my report on today's events. (Disclaimer: I am NOT a journalist by trade. I am an historian. What this means for you is that a). I didn't have a digital audio recorder, so there will be no direct quotations in this article. b). I will do my best to work from my nine pages worth of notes to get you the gist of what was said.

Arriving early, as I am wont to do, I park very close to the soccer field, soon to be the site of Newsterbaan, in the hopes of avoiding being ticketed for parking in the Orange Lot without a permit. Seriously, I parked like a quarter mile away from the doors. I arrived roughly 20 minutes before the slated 12:45 start time, where I will soon learn that that is a suggested start time.

12:50...Start pondering the universal truth of the Tom Petty statement regarding the waiting being the hardest part. Hey, there's Jamie Morris! (Quick note: On my way out, I got to say hello to him and shake his hand, which was a big thrill for me.)

12:55...There's Bruce Madej, Michigan Associate AD for Media Relations, filling in for Bill Martin. He notes that this is a wonderful chance for the general public to hear what Jim Delany, Big Ten commissioner, and Mark Silverman, President of the Big Ten Network, have to say. He goes on to note that the big question on everyone's mind is Comcast. He knows that, everyone knows that. He wants everyone to know that the Michigan Athletic Department is completely behind the Big Ten Network, noting that with the increased difficulty in getting the department's message into the media, in particular positive stories about Michigan's 700 student athletes, a group which has a grade point average above a "B" and that features a number of truly exceptional people beyond just their athletic prowess. Mr. Madej also notes that while the Big Ten Network will get those stories out there, they will be approaching things from a news stand point, so there will not be a whitewashing of news by the BTN about Big Ten schools.

12:57...The Mayor of Ann Arbor, John Hieftje, steps to the podium to present a pair of proclamations to Commissioner Delany and Mr. Silverman. The essence of the proclamation includes nods to the meaning of the Big Ten universities to their communities, the Big Ten Network's stated mission of coverage equality for men's and women's sports, it's promotion of "heartland values" (he honestly said that, both the city of Ann Arbor proclamation AND the state of Michigan proclamation said "heartland values" in them. It was so damn earnest.)

Bruce comes back up to the podium to introduce a pair of Michigan coaches to get their thoughts on the Big Ten Network. First up, Debbie Rademacher, Michigan's women's soccer coach. She makes a sound reinforcement of the case for the positive stories about Michigan student-athletes, and similarly, the quality of competition of underexposed sports, such as women's soccer, moving from two games a year on Comcast Local to a much larger potential exposure through BTN.

Next up, hey, it's new Michigan's men's basketball coach John Beilein! He notes that part of the reason that he chose to come to Michigan was that not only is there a wealth of talent regionally which is familiar with the Michigan name, but that the Block M carries meaning on a national level, and that students he talks to from California to Texas to Florida know what it Michigan is all about. He knows that the Big Ten Network will only serve to expand that reach. Statistically, he noted that while he was at West Virginia, they were on national TV five times. During that same period, Michigan was on national TV 79 times. He also notes that the Big Ten Network will mean 33% more exposure for the program as well. (As a side note, I enjoyed my first Beilein experience. He clearly has an ease with the press, and just enough of a Southern accent that comes and goes to make you feel at ease with him. It's a good first impression.)

Back to Mr. Madej, who notes that Michigan basketball was not on television 10 times last season In addition to that, 11 games were only broadcast in regional syndication. What the Big Ten Network means is 21 additional games for Michigan on national TV, all of them in HD.

1:10...Ladies and gentlemen, it's Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany. He notes that he and Mr. Silverman just came from Iowa, where they ran into Barack and Hillary campaigning, and in a way, that's what they are doing, campaigning for something they truly believe in. He then notes that there have been two very major differences in this negotiation than in all of the others he has done as Big Ten commissioner in 18 years. Firstly, it has been a very public negotiation (i.e. with Comcast) and that has presented new obstacles. For instance, when negotiating with ABC/ESPN, it has all been behind closed doors, and while those negotiations have been contentious as well, all the average fan sees is the finished product on the screen. He notes that the Big Ten has gone from 18 football games on television in 1989 to 67 games last years and that there were those who were concerned that this would affect attendance at games. Attendance has moved from an average of 57,000 per game in 1989 to 71,000 last season. (Note: I was impressed by this figure until I pondered it for a moment. If I have done the math correctly, the average attendance increase for the ten members of the Big Ten in 1989 is roughly 4,000 fans per school, with he addition of Penn State accounting for an additional 110,000 fans for each of their four Big Ten home games. Also worth noting that Michigan and Ohio State have both added seating in recent renovations, Michigan adding over 5,000 and at least 7,500 seats to Ohio Stadium. So it's impressive yes, but not as impressive as it sounded on first blush.) Commissioner Delany went on to note that in the recent negotiation with ABC/ESPN, the Big Ten held the line on No Thursday Night Football, no expansion of games offered on ESPN 360 or ESPNU, and it was noted that it is getting harder and harder to find channels willing to carry syndicated regional broadcasts for basketball. He also noted that as a part of that recent negotiation, the Big Ten "got back" over 4,200 classic basketball and football games from ESPN, including bowl games, which they will be making available the Big Ten Network and their cable partners.

The second difference in these negotiations is that there is always high interest for the Big Ten product, and that if they don't like they're hearing about basketball from say, CBS, they can always walk across the street and talk to ABC, or if they don't like what they are hearing about the football coverage from ABC, NBC will happily take a meeting with them. They have options. However, that isn't how cable works. If they don't like what they are hearing from, say, Comcast, they can walk across the street and...get a hot dog and a Coke. (This line elicited way more laughter than it should have. I understood the point, I guess the comedy bar was just very low in this crowd.) The problem is very simply explained: The Big Ten feels that the Big Ten Network is a network that will be of a very high interest to the communities and that it is easily among the 70 most desirable networks on cable. They have channels for jewelry, animals, shopping, and food, and no one seems to complain, even if there is limited interest, and that the Big Ten network easily will generate greater interest than much more niche channels. Comcast disagrees with this assessment, and that's where we stand today. Commissioner Delany also noted that 90% of all negotiations get done in the last 5% of the time before the deadline.

With that, Commissioner Delany introduces Mr. Mark Silverman, noting "He was out #1 draft choice." There was a run here about "What about July, what are you going to do with July?" and Mr. Silverman, who has a background at A&E and the History Channel, said that July will be the time for original programming to shine and if they can't make it work by drawing from the rich history, heritage, and tradition of the Big Ten, he doesn't deserve his job. Mr. Silverman goes on to note that he's a Michigan grad and states that the question that has been foremost in his mind has been "How can we best serve Michigan fans?" He notes that the BTN will have over 60 Michigan games, increased visibility for women's sports, variety that cannot be topped in today's marketplace. He also goes on to discuss the excitement about the classic Big Ten games that they will be showing, starting on Opening Night (August 30) with a Big Ten football preview, and then their first classic game...2006 Michigan vs. Ohio State (wonderful, so much like ESPN Classic, it seems like the Big Ten Network will revel in showing when Michigan fails.) He also notes that there will be a nightly studio show which will focus on student-athletes from the 11 schools, with each school having a mini studio on campus to increase the availability and presence of student athletes and coaches to this nightly show. This narrower focus will allow for greater depth and will showcase the core Midwestern values that are a major part of the Big Ten. In that vein, there will be no alcohol advertising on the network, no beer advertising, no gambling ads, and no informercials (OK, the last part made me smile.), and then asked how many times when you turn on one of those 70 extended basic channels at night or on a weekend is one of them showing an informerical? The Big Ten Network will also have an internship program which will have 10 students from each campus per semester working on the BTN, providing them valuable real-world experience in the television field.

That brings us to the question of distribution. There are LOTS of negotiations currently going on, and again, deals on this kind of thing get done very late. Or as Mr. Silverman put it "very, very, very, very late." Mr. Silverman also noted that if he has his way, he would prefer not to be negotiating, but that is not the case. It is the position of the network that it should be broadly distributed on extended basic. Not on a sports tier, not on digital. It should be part of your 70 basic channels you get with your monthly cable bill. He went on to note that the Network is willing to negotiate on every single other point but they will not move on the extended basic part. Mr. Silverman noted that they have 70 deals done with cable operators, that DirectTV and AT&T Cable are on board and that they are close with several other operators.

(Just a quick side note: I was deeply impressed by Mr. Silverman. I have never met anyone who is as smooth as he is. He stayed on point and on message during his entire discussion, never once got emotional, and made his case as rationally and as eloquently as possible.)

The essential point he hoped people would take away is that there is no other network that has this level of relevance that is on a sports tier. To wit, CSS (Comcast Sports Southeast) has six million subscribers with basic carriage. It carries no live football and a minimum of live SEC or ACC basketball. While there is nothing else like the Big Ten Network out there, all they are asking for is to be treated like everyone else. This is why concerned fans need to call their cable operators or the Big Ten Network's 866 number.

With that, there was some brief Q&A time:

A quick summary.

* I was able to ask about the 60 hours a year of university content that each member school is allocated, and whether or not that had to be non-athletic and what the plans were for the production. Mr. Silverman very politely pointed out that they feel that will be another strength of the Big Ten Network, able to focus on the quality of the academic programs that are a part of each Big Ten school.

* In response to cost concerns, Mr. Silverman wanted it noted that it is the goal of the Big Ten Network not to cost cable customers one cent more, in part by providing unique potential revenue streams, especially with local advertising. It is figured that a Michigan football game, for example, will be the highest rated program for its time period in the state of Michigan. That will create huge potential revenue streams in local advertising for cable operators. Mr. Silverman broke down that it is roughly 1/3 of the customer's cable bill is the company's cost, 1/3 is debt servicing for infrastructure investment, and 1/3 is profit. Oh and by the way, Comcast announced record profits last week, in case you hadn't heard. The Big Ten Network as also offering their HD network at no cost to the operators, which could be placed as an expanded offering in their HD tier, which generally goes for $6-10 a month.

* With regard to classic Big Ten programming, again over 4,200 basketball and football games. Some will be shown in their entirety, others will be two hour pre-production efforts which will include additional interviews with players, coaches, and the like. The plan is currently two classic Big Ten games a week.

* One questioner asked: Why not just give it away until it proves its worth? Mr. Silverman very politely replied that it's just not how it's done, and again, the Big Ten Network knows that there is value to what it is offering. It will be one of the largest television launches in history already, and hopefully, will get largest as we move through August.

* Can we get a phone number so we can talk to a real person at Comcast, which leads to a joke about the negotiation process which was funny, but because I cannot remember it in whole, I won't run with it.

Overall Impressions and Questions I am left to ponder:

I give major credit to this Open House and Commissioner Delany and Mr. Silverman for saying all the right things and making me feel that the Big Ten Network is laden with potential.

The library of 4,200 classic games astounds me, and I'll be interested to see how that rotation works.

The question I wanted to ask but couldn't figure out a way to do it without sounding potentially sexist:

It was very clear from the discussion today as well as the earlier comments from Commissioner Delany that women's athletics will play a major role on the network and will be treated as equals. The contracts obviously favor greatest access to women's sports. However, experience tells us that women's sports do not always draw the ratings numbers. Is this commitment to women's sports a long-term goal, or will adjustments be made as the data comes in? After all, as it was noted, television is, first and foremost, a business.

There was very little discussion about reaching the Big Ten alumni outside the footprint who do not have DirectTV. I think that right now, the focus is on winning the battle inside the footprint first. (So, sorry Will, your Illini will likely stay out of your reach for now.)

I do have some fears about the quality of the production, but I heard the phrase "every game in HD" so often, I no longer care.

This is going to come down to the wire, but I do ultimately think it will get done.

I did not get a parking ticket. Thank you Michigan campus security for your willingness to overlook my lack of parking permit.

Thank you for your time and I will be happy to field any questions you might have in the comments.



Cedrick said...

Great job - sorry I couldn't make it out there, but your write-up told me everything I needed to know. Now I can just get Comcast in East Lansing to get their shite together...


Mike B. said...

One half-truth in there. FOX News got on many cable systems quickly because they offered it for free or even paid the cable company to carry it for the first year. You think that Fox, which has a minority interest in the channel, would delve back to their history for future success.

Anonymous said...

great article, Silverman did a great job pointing out that there is no way to argue that the BTN would not be amoung the top 70 channels in the midwest.

Josh said...

People need to leave their cable companies now and get DirectTV (if you can do that where you live, I know it could be difficult if you rent) and tell the cable company why you are leaving. I just made the switch so I can't comment on the quality of DirectTV vs. cable, but I get more for my money already and I don't have to worry about whether or not I'll have BTN when it arrives. I'm not waiting around for my cable company (Insight) to see the light.

Anonymous said...

West Virginia actually had 13 nationally televised games just last season alone, so I'm not sure where the five comes from. Heck, WVU got on national TV five times just in the post-season last season.

Roy Hobbs said...

Yet another reason why I'm glad I switched to DirecTV 2 years ago.

CDB said...

Anon 3:08 PM--

I apologize for not mentioning in the text, but as I was writing up the part about Beilein comparing the national television exposure, my notes said five times and I thought "Wait, that can't be right." The problem was, I couldn't remember a right number, and then I must have forgotten to mention my doubt in that regard. I apologize for the oversight and thank you for the data.


Ryan said...

Shouldn't it be "a historian", not "an historian?" Not to go all Eddie Izzard on this, but I thought because the H is pronounced...