Big Ten Network loses its shine

We cannot justify charging everyone a premium price for a network that a fraction will watch.

With a new coach, new recruits and a new attitude, the Minnesota Gophers football team is building to be contenders for the Big Ten title in the coming years. Many have looked forward to seeing coverage of the Gophers team on the new Big Ten Network, a cable channel supposedly devoted to not only Big Ten football, but all Big Ten sports. Unfortunately, the BTN isn’t carrying the games that most fans want to watch, but is demanding that everyone pay a price that might end up putting even basic cable out of reach for low-income communities.

Gopher fans eager to see how their teams stack up against the best in the Big Ten will find that those games are already committed to stations such as ESPN and ABC as part of multimillion dollar deals. The leftovers that will appear on BTN include mostly games against weaker, out-of-conference opponents. In addition to this bleak lineup of games, BTN will fill space with highlight reels, coverage of track and field events and conference discussion programs aimed at debating who the new team to beat is in Big Ten gymnastics.

Certainly, some of the most devoted fans might find the Big Ten Network’s schedule of more obscure football games and sports appealing and the channel will be welcomed by athletes in less-publicized sports like diving. But a majority will never watch the channel and certainly don’t want to pay a monthly charge for it.

The BTN has struck a radical negotiation pose, demanding that the special interest network be carried on basic cable at a price that would charge subscribers hundreds of millions of dollars each year. That would make the BTN more expensive for basic cable subscribers than the History Channel, TNT, BET, CNN or the Discovery Channel. And while many people tune in to CNN and the Discovery Channel, few people are likely to watch the BTN.

If the BTN is successful in forcing itself on basic cable, everyone will likely see a hike in their cable bill. That might not make much of a difference for those that already subscribe to expensive premium services, but for those in low-income neighborhoods that can only afford basic cable; the hike could even force them to do without the service.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has repeatedly stated that the BTN is well worth its high price considering the loyalty of Big Ten fans. Many, including prominent sports commentators, have disputed this view, claiming that even the BTN’s best games are “fifth tier” compared to what fans can see on channels like ESPN.

Of course, offering the channel on basic cable isn’t the only option. Many cable providers have offered to air the BTN in a sports package with other similar channels. This seems like a reasonable compromise that would make the channel available to those who want it without having to raise everyone’s bills.

But Delany has ignored this common-sense approach and instead has blocked all fans from seeing the BTN, presumably planning to hold out until the channel gets a spot on basic cable. Apparently unwilling to negotiate a fair deal to put the channel on TV, Delany has unleashed a public relations campaign to force BTN onto basic cable, paying for TV commercials and giving numerous press conferences.

There’s no doubt that the Big Ten match-ups provide exciting games with many dramatic finales. But since many of those contests will air on channels other than the BTN, we cannot reasonably justify charging everyone a premium price for a network that just a fraction of Big Ten fans are likely to watch. BTN’s current proposal amounts to a stiff tax on cable subscribers and it will wind up taxing many out of basic cable services. Whatever the compromise is, the Big Ten Network should quit playing hardball with fans and consumers and find a way to put its Golden Gophers games on TV for fans without saddling everyone with a rate hike.

Kenneth Foxworth is a former Gopher football player. Please send comments to [email protected]