Big Ten Network, Comcast standoff continues

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The Big Ten Network has launched an all-out, last-minute blitz against cable giant Comcast.

Two weeks from today, the fledgling network is scheduled to broadcast its first football games.

As is stands now, those who live in the Pittsburgh region will not be able to see the Nittany Lions' season opener at home Sept. 1 against Florida International.

"It's really unfortunate, but we've not built any contingency plans for the early part of the football season," said Kevin Weiberg, vice president of university planning for the Big Ten Network. "We won't be able to do something at the last minute to make that game available here."

Comcast, which has 5.7 million customers in eight states with Big Ten schools, has been haggling with the network for months.

The network wants to be included on the expanded basic cable package. But Comcast has rejected that offer, wanting instead to place it on a sports tier.

The Big Ten Network, which involves a 20-year partnership with Fox, is asking Comcast to pay $1.10 per customer per month for its programming, which could force the cable company to raise its monthly rates.

If Comcast placed the Big Ten Network on the sports tier, the monthly rate would range between $5 and $6 per customer, but also would include the NFL Network, CSTV, Fox college sports channels and NBA TV.

Last year, the Penn State-Akron game drew a 5.4 rating in the Pittsburgh area -- which means that 95.6 percent of the market did not watch it -- while Penn State-Wisconsin pulled only a 3.7.

Comcast has not wavered in its stance from the beginning.

"We want to bring the Big Ten Network to customers in the best and fairest way, which would be to offer it on a digital sports tier in the eight-state Big Ten region and as an out-of-market subscription service for customers in other markets," said Jody Doherty, spokesperson for Comcast, Three Rivers Region.

That way, she said, Big Ten fans would be able to subscribe to it, while rates would not be raised for the rest of its customers .

Mr. Weiberg, former commissioner of the Big 12, and Penn State athletic director Tim Curley toured Central and Western Pennsylvania the past two days, urging Nittany Lions' fans to turn up the pressure on Comcast to add the network to the expanded basic tier.

"Penn State's had a rich history and tradition of our games being on television," Mr. Curley said. "Certainly we want a lot of people to be able to see our games. We're sold out for all of our home games this year, so tickets are in short supply. So there will be a lot of people that want to watch them."

Unless the Big Ten Network and Comcast strike a deal in the next two weeks, only those with DirecTV in Western Pennsylvania will be able to watch Penn State's opener.

Mr. Curley said that in addition to Florida International, three additional games -- with Buffalo, Iowa and Purdue -- could be affected if the impasse with Comcast drags on all season. All other Penn State games will be broadcast on ESPN, ESPN2 or ABC.

"In the last five years, we've probably had three games that haven't been on some form of television," he said. "The majority of Pennsylvania falls under Comcast and most would get shut out if we don't get a deal."

The Big Ten Network, set to debut Aug. 30, will televise between 350 and 400 events during its inaugural year. The schedule includes at least 35 football games, more than 100 men's basketball games, women's basketball and more than 170 other sports events.

The network also plans to air more than 600 hours of Penn State programming. The majority of Penn State's 29 varsity sports, if not all, will be featured in 2007-08, in addition to at least 60 hours of institutional, non-athletic programming.

"Negotiations have been slow with the big cable companies," Mr. Weiberg said. "I would say Comcast has been one of the slowest. Sort of the message has been, `Sports tier or nothing.' We really believe that in this region, the product deserves to be on expanded basic cable. That's been the major sticking point. We've indicated that there's some flexibility on price if we could crack through in the discussions relative to expanded basic.

"We're offering the channel in the region for about $1 a month per subscriber. Outside the region, we're offering it for a dime. So for Comcast, the blended national rate of this channel is really about 30 cents when you consider it across their subscribers nationally.

"ESPN charges well over $3 per subscriber nationally. There's no comparison. This network is maybe 10 percent of the national rate of an ESPN event. At $1.10 a subscriber, that's well below what Comcast charges for its own regional sports networks."


Ron Musselman can be reached at rmusselman@post-gazette.com .


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