Nearing The Stretch Run

Many fans would be in the dark if the football season started today. The Big Ten Network, which will show Ohio State's first two football games, is still in negotiations with major cable operators. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and network president Mark Silverman were on campus Thursday to discuss the status of negotiations and deal with some other rumors.

The Big Ten Network's caravan pulled into Columbus Thursday as conference commissioner Jim Delany and network president Mark Silverman met with fans and the media as part of their tour through conference markets to answer even more questions about the fledgling network that has become the talk of the summer.

The kickoff of the college football season is less than a month away, but if the games started today, many fans would be left in the dark when it comes to watching their favorite teams including Ohio State, whose first two games will be on the channel. Those fans who are with cable providers Time Warner, Insight and Wide Open West, among others, still do not know whether they will be able to watch the season opener from home, but Silverman updated the status of negotiations with the major cable operators.

"I think we're 50/50," Silverman said. "I think we have a shot to get this done in the next two weeks. I am optimistic that we will be able to come to an agreement."

The BTN already does have agreements with AT&T, the Buckeye CableSystem of northwest Ohio and DirecTV, on whose system the channel will be part of the Total Choice package and be channel number 220. In addition to the three major cable operators in the Columbus area, the network is still in negotiations with Dish Network.

Silverman said that negotiations are ongoing, with the major sticking point continuing to be the network's demand that cable operators in the Big Ten's eight-state footprint place the channel as part of the expanded basic package that most consumers have. Delany said other than that demand, everything else is negotiable, including the price of adding the channel to the cable system, which has widely been reported as $1.10 per subscriber.

"We're flexible on everything except distribution," the commissioner said. "We think that Buckeye games in the state of Ohio are relevant programs. … We feel strongly about that, but everything else is fairly negotiable."

One rumor that has continued to abound is that sports bars would be prevented from showing the Big Ten Network, thus depriving fans that do not end up with the channel in their homes from being to watch the games with others. Silverman seemed taken aback by the rumor.

"I heard this for the first time very recently and I sent a note to find out," he said. "I am looking into it. It would be a complete surprise if that's the case and I would work to make sure that in any deal, DirecTV should be carrying it everywhere. There are no limitations to that agreement as far as I know."

While football is at the forefront of the battle for the moment, the Big Ten Network will also show more than 105 regular-season conference basketball games each year, and Silverman said the basketball schedule will be released next week. Thad Matta's Buckeyes can expect to have 15 to 20 games carried on the channel in addition to the three or four football games that will end up on there. Overall, the university will have about 70 games on the channel, with the remaining 45 to 50 broadcasts non-revenue sports.

In fact, the presence of non-revenue sports such as volleyball and soccer continues to be one of the major points cable companies are holding against the network. Cable companies have argued publicly that it would be unfair to make consumers in Columbus pay for a broadcast of a volleyball game between Indiana and Iowa that most would not watch, but Silverman pointed out that no cable network can satisfy viewers at all times.

"As you turn your basic cable dial, how much of the programming on any other network do you find every hour exactly what you're looking for?" Silverman said. "You have reruns of shows that have been on since the 1960s, you have infomercials that run all weekend long.

"TV is TV. You have your top programs and you have your other programs, and I'm happy to put on Indiana/Iowa women's volleyball because it's consistent with what the Big Ten is about."

In the meantime, the network will continue to negotiate. Major negotiations will take place with Time Warner, which constitutes 15 percent of the audience in Big Ten country, and Comcast, which has 6 million subscribers in the conference footprint. Another option on the table is that Time Warner, Central Ohio's largest carrier, said in the Columbus Dispatch that it would consider showing the first two OSU games on a basic cable channel without adding the entire network itself.

Silverman said the next two weeks will be critical for negotiations, and he would like to have deals in place before Aug. 27 or 28 to ensure that fans will be able to receive the network by the Sept. 1 kickoff. Expecting a deal before then might be expecting too much, Delany said.

"Every negotiation that we've had in private tends to go down to the wire," Delany said. "Maybe it's human nature. You don't really know what's going to happen. It's unknown."

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