In terms of public reputation, Charter Communications has long found itself in a less-than-lofty position. Ask a Charter subscriber for a horror story based on his or her dealings with the company, and you'll probably get one. Maybe a monthly bill listed an incorrect amount, or the Internet reception was sketchy, or the service technician showed up late, made a mess and failed to install the equipment properly. These aren't isolated incidents — lots of people have such tales. Given Charter's track record, it would be easy — and perhaps natural — to blame the cable provider for its current impasse with the fledgling Big Ten Network. People already hate the company, so Charter doesn't really stand to lose anything by not letting customers see a few college football and basketball games, right?
Such a theory would seem to make sense. But it would be incorrect. That's because, in the case of the BTN discussions, Charter is looking out for its customers' best interests.
If your head didn't just explode, allow me to explain. Until this year, you could watch the vast majority of Badger football and men's basketball games on television. They appeared on various stations –ESPN, ABC, CBS, etc. — available on Charter's standard expanded basic service. Occasionally a game wouldn't be televised, but it was almost always an early, low-profile, non-conference game.
This year, a sizable number of Badger football and basketball games will not be available on Charter's standard lineup, not because of any action on Charter's part, but because of the Big Ten Conference's decision to put the games on its new network.
Like other cable channels, BTN does not offer its programming for free. The network is seeking to charge cable providers $1.10 per subscriber per month in the eight-state Big Ten region. The charge per subscriber in other states would be $0.10. By comparison, the NFL Network, also mired in negotiations with Charter, is asking for $0.75 per subscriber, according to the New York Times. CNN charges $0.44. ESPN, being the most expensive cable network, charges $2.91.
Cable providers usually pass the cost of channels onto subscribers in their monthly bills, but BTN insists Charter offer the new network as part of the extended basic package at no additional cost to subscribers. The network innocently tries to exonerate itself by stating on its website: "The decision whether to raise rates is made by your provider, not by the Big Ten or the Big Ten Network… [Cable providers] do not have to pass the asking price to the consumer." Somewhere, Gov. Jim Doyle, he of the "tax oil companies but don't let them pass it on to customers" plan, is smiling.
Charter has responded by offering to put BTN on its premium "sports tier," which is available at an additional charge for subscribers who want it. This way, customers who do not wish to receive BTN do not have to pay for it.
Whether BTN deserves to be on a special tier or on the basic cable offering depends in part on how universally appealing the programming is. To get a sense of that, let's look at what BTN says it will show, as stated on its website:
- 39 football games per season: This is good, except you won't see Ohio State vs. Michigan-type matchups. Those will still be on ABC. Instead, hello Akron vs. Indiana.
- 140 regular-season men’s basketball games: A more substantial offering, with some good games. Then again, most good games were already on TV before BTN existed.
- 55 regular-season women’s basketball games: There's a limited audience for women's basketball. BTN has pledged to devote equal time to men's and women's sports, which is noble, but neglects the fact that demand for the two is nowhere near the same.
- Big Ten championship events: Everyone who wants to see these games probably already attends them in person.
- Archived Big Ten events, including bowl games: Relive the spectacle of Minnesota vs. North Carolina State in the 2000 MicronPC.com Bowl.
- 170 Olympic sporting events: Again, the audience is very limited.
- Coaches’ shows: You've asked for it, Wisconsinites, and now you've got it: the Joe Tiller show!
- 660 hours of campus programming: This might be cool, or it might be video of a janitor sweeping Penn State lecture halls.
Cynicism aside, BTN seems to be a niche offering. I'm sure some of the side programming is truly worthwhile and enjoyable, but is there enough of it to make a truly viable network? Consider me skeptical at this point.
Many would note that expanded basic cable lineups are already packed with networks devoted to highly specific audiences. They're right. I would love to jettison Lifetime, Oxygen, etc. to a special women's tier and not have to pay for them anymore. You could do the same with a men's tier of Spike TV, Vs., etc. Letting subscribers have more of a choice cannot be a bad thing. If enough customers want to watch a certain network, it'll survive. Other networks won't make it, because demand simply isn't high enough. I would love to see a cable provider take a "tier" approach to all its channels.
It may turn out that BTN is great, with quality programming that appeals to a large audience. But we don't know that yet. And as a new network, not to mention one that has yet to reach an agreement with any major cable provider, BTN does not have much leverage. If it doesn't budge from its inflated demands, it risks being seen by extremely few people this fall. Advertisers, I'm sure, will be impressed by that.
Let's end with a question: If Wisconsin plays The Citadel and no one sees it on TV, did the game really happen? The answer, as anyone at the stadium can tell you, is "yes." If you weren't among those who were there, don't get too mad at Charter, as guilty as the company may have been in the past. This time, the Big Ten deserves most of the blame.
Ryan Masse ([email protected]) is a first-year law student.