July 31, 2007

Reception a problem for Big Ten Network

CHICAGO The Big Ten Network, which is scheduled to televise more than 30 football games this season, remains unavailable to about 80 percent of its prospective viewers.

Mark Silverman, president of the fledgling network which debuts on Aug. 30, said on Tuesday he remains optimistic that continuing negotiations with major cable television operators can produce an agreement before Big Ten teams open the football season on Sept. 1.

"We never expected to have the large cable operator deals done at this point," Silverman said. "We anticipate having productive conversations in coming weeks and will negotiate behind closed doors."

At this point, the Big Ten Network which will air four Big Ten football games on Sept. 1 is only available through DirecTV. Silverman estimated about 20 percent of consumers in the Big Ten area subscribe to the satellite television service.

Silverman and major cable operators Comcast, Cox and Time-Warner disagree how the Big Ten Network should be distributed. He maintains it should be offered on expanded basic cable within the eight states that are home to Big Ten teams Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Instead, the major cable providers want to offer it as a "sports tier" channel, which would require additional fees to view - and thus limit the distribution.

Silverman feels the Big Ten Network should only be offered as a "sports tier'' channel in states outside the Big Ten region.

"Right now, only 40 percent of consumers have the ability to get the sports tier," Silverman said. "On the sports tier today, I don't see networks that have the same appeal as the Big Ten Network. When you have sports networks like ESPN, ESPN2, Regional Sports Networks, VERSUS, Golf Channel on basic, this clearly shows the Big Ten Network belongs there."

In addition to the football games, Silverman said the Big Ten Network plans to air more than 100 regular-season basketball games, weekly coaches' shows and other lower-profile sports. He believes the channel has more mass appeal in the region than other expanded basic channels, which often show infomercials and re-runs of decades-old television series.

"Across the country, relevant local programming is all on expanded basic cable packages," he said. "When paying for these (approximately) 75 channels in a local market, you should receive programming relevant to you."

He may have a point, but the bottom line is thousands of Big Ten football fans could be denied the chance to see their teams play. That might cause supporters of those schools to feel betrayed.

"My response would be I understand and believe the conference is largely built by its fan base," Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said. "I would also point out what we've done to serve that fan base. We've been resistant to ESPN's desire to move games to ESPNU. I would point to the fact that we're in alignment with our fans. We're about more TV, not less. Nothing good happens easily, and nothing good happens overnight."

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.


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