FOS Q&A: Mark Silverman

What are the odds you will be able to watch Penn State's season opener against Florida International on Comcast cable systems?'s Mark Brennan goes one on one with the president of the Big Ten Network for the answer to that question and many more.

Mark Silverman was named president of the Big Ten Network last December, about nine months before the venture's scheduled Aug. 30, 2007 launch. A key task along the way was moving his family from Los Angeles, where he had been an executive for Disney/ABC, to Chicago.

With an 11-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter, Silverman and his wife wondered if the relocation would be tough on the kids. But once the move was made, the parents discovered their children were just fine.

“We're enjoying the Midwest,” the 42-year-old Silverman said late last week. “I think every couple of days my kids look at me and say, 'People here are so nice.' It's been great.”

But some people have not been so nice. And not everything has been great.

One of the real issues when launching a new network is finding attractive slots for it on cable systems. And while the Big Ten Network has secured deals to appear on DirectTV and the basic or expanded basic tiers of several cable companies throughout the conference's eight states, it is still trying to work out contracts with some of the industry's heaviest hitters.

Included in that group is Comcast, the big boy in Pennsylvania. Negotiations between the cable giant and Big Ten have gotten nasty at times — with Comcast criticizing the new network's programming and the Big Ten demanding an apology.

The debate boils down to one serious sticking point: The Big Ten insists the network appear on basic or expanded basic cable packages in the conference's eight states because the demand is there and it will be less expensive for fans to watch; Comcast and other cable companies want to park the network on more expensive digital cable “sports” tiers, suggesting there is not enough interest in the network to rate non-digital placement.

With the launch of the network less than a month away (and the start of college football season quickly following), time is running short for deals to be made.

Why should you care?

Because two of Penn State's first three games — the opener against Florida International and the third game against Buffalo — will only be available to view on the Big Ten Network. And if the Big Ten can't swing a deal with your local cable company before then, you will only be able to see the games if you subscribe to DirectTV.

Penn State fans are asking a lot of questions about the Big Ten Network and the cable companies. So last Friday, editor Mark Brennan conducted an in-depth, one-on-one interview with Silverman to get his thoughts on where things stand.

Read on to see how the conversation went, keeping in mind that the Q&A was edited for length and clarity:

FOS: Why are you doing so many interviews these days?

MS: There's so much interest in this network and the publicity regarding its distribution. There's a lot of attention and it's hard trying to get a network launched and making sure we do the best we can to really properly portray us in the press. I think we've been more successful at the former than the latter, to be honest with you.

FOS: We've been receiving a lot of questions from Penn State fans who are completely confused on what's going on with the negotiations with Comcast and some of the other companies. People are wondering if they are going to be able to see the Big Ten Network games, which include Penn State's opener and third game.

MS: I really would love to get Penn State fans the games on their cable provider or satellite provider, whoever it is they have. We're in a very difficult negotiation to try and bring the network on air. I think as you know, the crux of the issue really is we believe this network has a broad appeal and the number of viewers who will watch Penn State sports, particularly football and basketball, but other sports as well, is a broad number, is a number of people that greatly exceeds the vast majority of the people that watch most cable networks. Especially those on your expanded basic level of service, and where we've been saying that within the eight [Big Ten] states, and we firmly believe this, that we deserve and the fans deserve to get this network when you're paying a cable bill. And if you're paying a cable bill and you're getting 75-80 channels within the eight states and within the Big Ten markets, this is relevant product.

This is Penn State community programming, and if you're fans of the university — and we feel that throughout the vast majority of the state [there are fans] because the ratings for this programming has proven it — it very much should be there in the basic service.

Comcast has been adamantly saying it's sports tier [on digital packages] or nothing, and we find that to be a very unreasonable proposition. If you look in the marketplace, there are many networks similar where you have a focus of a particular region with a sports network and every single one of them is on basic. Comcast themselves owns many, many sports networks and there's not one Comcast network that they own that they put on a [digital] tier in their systems and we feel they're really trying to sway the public to a viewpoint that there's no rationale for if you really look at the market.

FOS: If you were a Penn State fan right now, what would you do?

MS: If I'm in a Penn State fan's shoes and I do not have DirectTV, I would be calling my operator and very calmly just saying that this is a network that you believe should be part of your basic cable package. That the cable provider as part of what they're supposed to be doing is providing relevant programming to each community and that in the community here that is so close to Penn State University, that this is the network that greatly exceeds the vast majority of networks that you give me that I have no choice in. That when I pay my cable bill I'm paying for all of these networks. I'm paying for a food network, a travel network, many shopping networks and I deserve to get a network that I want and that's this network. And that is a Penn State network and it is programming that I want to see. And if you don't do so, you may be put in a position to find an alternative method of finding the network.

FOS: So what you're running is basically a George Lois-style “I want my MTV” campaign?

MS: I don't know the name of the guy, but it was obviously an impactful campaign when we were growing up. … You deserve it. I look at this and I look at every possible way to split this up. I look at the reality of a business that you pay for 75 channels and you have no say in it. And they put them together and it's such an obvious bias in there as to what channels are in that network, or in that system, and this kind of programming, anywhere you look throughout the country, when you have programming that relevant to a community. If you look at any regional sports network, if you look at any other programming, that content would rate the ratings that Penn State football and basketball are going to rate, they're all on basic cable. There's nothing new that we're asking for that has not been done time and time again throughout the country. And you can't even find anything even close to a network like this with the number of events, with the level of local appeal, that is on a sports tier. It's just completely, I think, being utilized — I hope — as a negotiating position so that when they finally move off of this place, they're going to say, OK, we'll move here, I want you guys to move in other areas, which frankly, I'd be open to. Let's go get a deal done.

FOS: Is there a proverbial line drawn in the sand here where the Comcasts and Insights and Time Warners of the world are saying you have to be on a digital sports tier and you guys are saying we absolutely won't be? Or is there flexibility?

MS: They really know that what they're saying does not fly and that at the end of the day, they're going to come to us and they're going to say let's get serious and work out a deal. And we're going to be willing to sit down and negotiate and get a deal done with our big caveat being we want this broadly distributed, we want fans of Penn State throughout the state to be able to see it. And we want it out there and we want it on expanded basic.

FOS: What qualifies as the end of the day?

MS: We're still July and I wouldn't call it early [in the procees] but I wouldn't call it late. We're at the time when these things should be starting to talk, we should be starting to negotiate more seriously. And I believe that there is going to be an opportunity where we can do that. … We've done a DirectTV deal, we've done our AT&T deal. We're doing deals pretty much each week now, and everything has been on expanded basic. Every single deal. And that's going to have to continue. Again, there are other things you can negotiate on. And I think we can make it worth the cable operators' while if they can see sort of the rationale of being on expanded basic.

FOS: What are the points that could be negotiated? What other chips are in play here?

MS: I'd say the price of the network, obviously number one. We're providing an HD network to them in addition to a regular network and they're going to be able to upcharge on an HD tier for people that now want to buy it because they can get to see Penn State in HD. There's these extra games, so like week one, when Penn State's playing and we're putting the Penn State game on in the State of Pennsylvania, there may be some Michigan fans and Ohio State fans [in Pennsylvania] that want to watch those games. We could offer all of those games up to them. And they could be able to clear them all. DirectTV is going to air all of these games and that's an opportunity to generate new revenue for them. And there's other things called video on demand programming and broadband content. There's a lot here and we're willing to work so that economically it can make sense. But the one area when we look in that's really vital is that it's broadly distributed. We want the people throughout the eight states to be able to see their teams play.

FOS: So is it fair to say that having it on expanded basic or basic cable is the one non-negotiable thing from your perspective?

MS: Within the eight states, yes.

FOS: I read recently that there were not a lot of discussions going on at this time between the Big Ten and Comcast. Is that accurate? And number two, if so, is that a little bit scary considering that the season is rapidly approaching?

MS: There are conversations going on. And these are just … they're very sensitive discussions. And we're hopeful that they can start becoming more productive than they've been so far.

FOS: How tricky has it been? I know you're relatively new to the Big Ten, but the conference has this reputation for doing all of its negotiation behind closed doors, very secretive. So how difficult has it been for this stuff to be played out more publicly I assume than Commissioner [Jiim] Delaney or yourself would have liked?

MS: That aspect, the public aspect of this, has been very difficult. We are trying to go about doing our jobs in a high-minded manner that represents the Big Ten in an appropriate way. And we do feel at times we've been brought into a very public, ugly display that we don't really want to play a part in. And it has been difficult and it has been very public and hopefully we can get past that piece and go work at building a network that people want to watch and get on TV.

FOS: I also read in different places that it's kind of contentious between the different parties here. Is that a fair assessment? And how do you improve that if it is a fair assessment?

MS: Obviously I can't speak for the other guys, but I think there was a period of time a little while back that maybe got personal. In my mind that's in the past and I look at it like there's two companies that are trying to do what's best for each other and we should be able to do so without getting into those kind of ugly and personal public attacks.

FOS: Realistically speaking, what would you like to see happen in the next couple of weeks?

MS: You know, we could definitely make a lot of headway if we can work within the construct of basic cable and these other areas I mentioned to you, coming up with a way to make it work. It's really, in my mind, it's at the cable companies' desks. We've made proposals to Comcast and we haven't gotten any kind of meaningful reply other than its sports tier or nothing. And as soon as we can kind of just get that opening to get in there, then we can make some good progress and move this along. And it could happen pretty quickly. So we're sort of at a place where we're ready to engage and we're hoping that Comcast moves off of what we consider to be a pretty drastic position.

FOS: What kind of feedback are you getting from fans across the Big Ten? Are they upset that a decision hasn't been worked out already? Are they behind you?

MS: My general feel is I think there's some confusion. I think the people who know about the network are very excited about it. I think there's definitely some angst among people that want to get the network that as of today their provider isn't carrying. My sense is that people readily connect to the games, the classic games, the nightly show and all of the great programming that they would be regular watchers of. And what, at this point, we try to tell people is that we never expected deals to be done at this point with the bigger guys. But we would have hoped that we'd be having just more productive conversations. And that's sort of the change. It's not that the deals aren't done. It's that it's been so public and in our opinion they've staked out such a drastic position here.

FOS: Is there any way you could put a percentage on what you think the odds are, or chances are, of a deal being done for that season opener?

MS: I can throw you a number as a guess, but I just don't know what's going on in the [Comcast] offices in Philadelphia. I just don't know where they are. We are talking. I don't know. The easy guess is 50-50, right? And I'm not going to say it's any worse than that or better than that. If they could kind of get their arms around it being in basic and coming up with a way to make it work, great. So that's the best I can give you there.

FOS: Is there a chance that people are not going to be able to get that season opener anywhere unless they have DirectTV?

MS: Yeah. If we're in the last week, it's going to be a decision [for fans]. People are going to have to decide if they want to get the network and it's only available in certain places, what they need to do.

FOS: It's not like people could set up DirectTV in a week, though. I might be wrong about that in other places. But it won't happen at this time of year in State College.

MS: That's a good question. You know, if you want to make sure you don't miss anything, you probably do need to give yourself more than a week. Maybe it's two weeks before launch. Yeah that's fair.

FOS: Is it a gamble that if people don't see the opener they might not lash out against the cable company, they may lash out against you?

MS: Yeah. If I'm a fan, I lash out at everybody. We're trying to work within that knowledge. We're not going to be immune. We know that.

FOS: What other challenges are you facing heading up to this Aug. 30 debut? You talk about there being a lot of time left in terms of negotiations, but I think in terms of rolling out network, this is crunch time.

MS: Yeah. We're on the air in less than five weeks and we were just viewing some clips of some other in studio hosts to work with. We have a couple of more hires still to make there. The games are all being scheduled and worked on and making sure we have production trucks to produce them all and all of the people needed to go produce all of these games. I mean, Sept. 1, we're producing six football games in one day. There are not many companies that do that. And I think that's one of the things again with people just not realizing the extent of what this network is. I mean six Big Ten football games in one day. From going from nothing, not even being on the air a few hours earlier, it's a huge undertaking. It's an expensive undertaking. It's a lot of coordination and logistics and we've got a lot to do, but we're at a good pace here. The studio is almost all built out and that should be finished up next week. We'll have a good couple of weeks to rehearse and get ready for our studio show. The game announcers, we've made great strides getting our lead guys in and now we'll work on rounding out the rest of our announcing team. In terms of marketing and ad sales, we're fully rolling already. So we're in a good place, but we definitely have a lot to do. That's for sure.

FOS: I read in your bio that you came from ABC Cable Networks Group. What exactly was it that you did there?

MS: I was on the board of A&E, Lifetime and the History Channel. I managed our company's equity interest in those channels. I also worked on kind of overall cable issues that involved our other channels including ABC Family Channel, which I ran as well at one point, the Disney Channel, the SoapNet Channel and just kind of general TV issues related to ABC and cable.

FOS: Did you play a role in creating shows at all?

MS: Not in actually creating shows. The one show that I worked on that was way back, it wasn't really on the creative of it, it was more on the sponsorship side, was “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”. And I actually went with the producer to AT&T and tried to pitch them on “phone a friend,” which believe it or not they didn't get at all. There had to be several follow-up meetings before they understood what it was we were trying to do and I think history speaks for itself.

FOS: So why did you make the move to the Big Ten Network?

MS: I went to Michigan grad school. I understood the appeal of the Big Ten. I thought this is something that is a massive, massive next stop of fans of strong brands that mean something. I could really take it and launch it and have a network that I believe in a couple of years, Big Ten fans will wonder what it was like without it. And really put something that will be around forever, and be directly responsible for its launch and its success. I think you just always look for opportunities in your work world that will just be special and hard and memorable and leave a mark when you're done, and it fit the bill in all respects.

FOS: In that regard, how crucial is this next month? Because it's not just Big Ten fans who are watching you. I think the eyes of the college football world, in a sense, are on this situation to see how it plays out.

MS: Yeah, I think there's a lot of attention on it. I think some people have said they may not exactly be helping our cause when you have cable operators who are worried about opening the floodgates. But you know what? We're definitely blazing the trail, there ARE a lot of eyes on us. I believe it makes all the sense in the world when you have some commonality in the conference of people who love the level of competition, who love Big Ten sports, who are big time fans and I think there's an appeal there for other conferences to see. And I question as to how many of them can really do this, but I understand why they're very interested in it.

FOS: What exactly is it you do as the president of the network?

MS: A lot of it has been hiring up, getting everyone ramped up. There were two of us when I started and there are about 60 now. We're going to 90 or so by the time we're done, so we've gotta get that going with the hiring. Making sure we're breathing and living the Big Ten culture and as we go about our scheduling, our programming, conducting business meetings and marketing, everything is just at a level, working with all of the universities at a detailed level. The athletic departments, the alumni groups, the presidents, making sure all of the universities are being represented on screen and off screen appropriately. The programming ideas and making sure that I think they're representative of what we should be doing. All general aspects of running a business but running a brand, too. And there's just a constant effort. And not to mention getting out on the road and shaking hands and meeting alumni and hearing what alumni have to say and making sure we're delivering a network. Because at the end of the day, everything that we're doing is trying to bring a product that a fan of the Big Ten is gonna like and want to see and I've gotta make sure that we're on track to do it.

FOS: How old are you?

MS: I'm 42.

FOS: That seems relatively young to be network president.

MS: It's not extraordinarily young by any stretch. It's maybe on the younger side, but not by a significant degree. I think there's a lot of people at my age that are in these types of positions. There are many people that also are older. So I would say it's on the younger side, but not dramatically so.

FOS: Can you tell me about your family situation a little bit?

MS: I'm married and I have two young kids. My son's 11 and my daughter is 9. And we all moved here to Chicago and we're enjoying the Midwest. I think every couple of days my kids look at me and say, “People here are so nice.” It's been great. I'm working a lot and I don't see them much. But it's been a really enjoyable experience and I'm honored to be leading the charge to get this network up in the air and to represent the Big Ten.

FOS: Where were you living before?

MS: In Los Angeles.

FOS: You mentioned you went to Michigan grad school. Where did you go to do your undergrad work?


FOS: The last thing, do you work for Fox or the Big Ten or both?

MS: I work for the Big Ten. The [network] is a limited liability company and this is a joint venture between Fox and the Big Ten Conference. As part of its responsibilities, Fox provides back end support. So a lot of the administrative stuff is handled by Fox.


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