The Last of the Holdouts

With season looming, two Pennsylvania cable companies have yet to work out deals with the Big Ten Network.

And then there were two.

Penn State kicks off the 2009 season against Akron at Beaver Stadium Saturday, the first of three straight Nittany Lion games -- and perhaps as many as six overall -- that will appear on the Big Ten Network this fall.

The good news is the vast majority of Pennsylvania cable subscribers will be able to see all of the Nittany Lions' appearances on the BTN. Recent deals with holdouts Atlantic Broadband (in the Altoona area) and Service Electric Cablevision (in the eastern Coal Region and Allentown areas) expanded the network's reach to nearly every corner of the state.

The bad news is that word “nearly.” Because as of Wednesday night, there were two cable companies of significant size in the Big Ten's entire geographic footprint that had yet to ink deals with the BTN, and both of them were in Pennsylvania.

Armstrong Cable, based in Butler County, and Blue Ridge Communications, serving eastern and south-central Pennsylvania, had yet to pick up the Big Ten Network. Combined, they serve at least 250,000 households in the state.

The Big Ten Network is about to begin its third year of broadcasting. During the 2007 football season, the BTN had yet to work deals with several of cable industry's heavy hitters, including giant Comcast. But it signed a deal with Comcast in time for the 2008 football season, and over the past year one cable company after another agreed to terms with the BTN.

In all, more than 300 cable companies are now carrying the Big Ten Network.

Getting so close to clearing deals with every cable company of significant size in the Big Ten states, but coming up just short before the 2009 season, was admittedly a disappointment for network president Mark Silverman.

“Hundreds of operators much smaller than these guys have agreed to carry the network at a price comparable if not higher [than what they would pay],” Silverman said. “… The one real nagging element to me is I know we have a bunch of Penn State fans wanting to watch the games and I'm kind of helpless to do anything about it.”

Silverman contends that since the Big Ten Network has already cut deals with cable companies of practically every size, there is little room for negotiation with Armstrong and Blue Ridge. He said not only would it be bad business to offer them better deals -- whether at a lower cost per household and/or by waiving the demand that the network appear on a basic tier -- but it would also break existing contracts with other operators.

“Their deals would be violated, and these guys know it,” Silverman said.

He does not get the indication that either company will budge soon.

“They're looking at it as making the decision in what they think is their best business interest,” Silverman said. “That's their right, and by no means am I trying to speak ill will of them. It's just that as a result of that, Penn State fans are not going to be able to watch their games.

“We're doing all we can,” he added. “But we can't make someone carry it.”

In Silverman's opinion, customers of Armstrong and Blue Ridge who want the Big Ten Network should call their cable companies. Think the old “I want my MTV” ads from the 1980s.

“I honestly think they've looked at it, thought about it, and at this point they don't believe their subscribers want the network that badly,” Silverman said. “I do think if viewers would let these guys know that [the BTN has] programming they want to see, it may have an impact on changing that mindset.”

In related news, Silverman said as many as six Penn State games could end up on the network this year. The first three [Akron, Syracuse and Temple] are already tabbed for the BTN.

He said an Oct. 3 game at Illinois will likely land on the BTN if ABC does not pick it up. Since Michigan State is at Michigan that same day, and since ABC typically carries the in-state rivalry, the prospect of the Lions and Illini landing on the Big Ten Network are good.

An Oct. 10 home game with Eastern Illinois is all but a lock for the BTN since it is doubtful any of the ESPN/ABC networks will grab it.

Of the remaining seven games, three are already slated for the ESPN/ABC networks (Iowa Sept. 26, Minnesota Oct. 17 and at Northwestern Oct. 31). Ohio State (Nov. 17) and at Michigan State (Nov. 21) have traditionally been on ABC or ESPN, and figure to be this year, as well.

That leaves an Oct. 24 game at Michigan and a Nov. 14 home date with Indiana.

The Michigan game will vie with Purdue-Illinois for an ABC slot, given that the rest of the Big Ten games on the slate that day are already set for the BTN or ESPN2.

No TV has been set for the conference's Nov. 14 games yet. Other games that day include Iowa at Ohio State, Michigan at Wisconsin, Michigan State at Purdue and Northwestern at Illinois.

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