The Sinclair Broadcast Group is representative of everything wrong with broadcasting in the new millennium. During the 00’s they became notorious for repeatedly airing “documentaries” on their stations that were hit pieces on Democratic figures and causes, most notoriously one on the Swift Boat accusations against John Kerry in 2004. Even before that they were a dirty word in media consolidation circles for their use of shell companies to circumvent FCC rules prohibiting owning more than one station in a market (and later, owning more than two in a large market). Recently, they’ve gone on an acquisition binge, including DC-based Allbritton and Seattle-based Fisher, that has them bumping up against another FCC limit: if the FCC goes forward with eliminating the “UHF discount” (counting UHF stations as only half their market value against the national cap) Sinclair will be bumping up against the limit in a way that the companies owning the stations in the largest markets – and who also own the very networks Sinclair is affiliated with – will not be.
But Sinclair’s market power also gives it considerable influence over the future direction of the broadcast industry. And in that light, today’s announcement of the American Sports Network, or ASN, fits so perfectly into the framework I laid out a year ago that I can’t help but wonder whether someone at Sinclair read the version of that post I put on RabbitEars.info. Assuming it’s not so dependent on retransmission consent revenue that it results in Sinclair undermining their own nominal means of distribution, it could well be the key to the broadcast industry’s turning around its fortunes. And though it launches with only five mid-to-low-tier college conferences on board (only one of which plays FBS football), it could well prove to have a better shot at running down ESPN than any other player that has come along so far.
ASN will initially be distributed primarily across Sinclair’s CW and MyNetworkTV affiliates, and on digital subchannels on Sinclair’s other stations. The press release also mentions that “other broadcasters” are interested in airing ASN content as well. This makes me wonder whether Sinclair’s long-term plan is to turn ASN into a potential replacement for the CW and/or MyNet, especially in light of yesterday’s news of Fox’s attempt to buy Time Warner, which would have given them half-control of the CW and likely resulted in either the CW turning into CBS’ version of MyNet or the closing of MyNet entirely (and especially if they throw in Ring of Honor wrestling). The press release also mentions the potential launch of “new cable networks and digital platforms” surrounding ASN content, pending securing agreements with cable providers – which could refer to an aspect of what I had in mind last year I didn’t dare mention or even hint at, which would allow ASN, were they to set their sights much, much higher than the likes of Conference USA, to avoid the pitfalls that were the downfall of Fox Sports Net.
Throughout the 90s, many people felt that the collection of regional sports networks across the country, including the majority of them operating under the SportsChannel and Prime names, were they to join together as a single force, could put together a sports empire rivaling ESPN, given their distribution advantages and the attractive programming from local teams they could offer. But when Rupert Murdoch bought the SportsChannel and Prime networks with an eye to doing just that, the very thing that looked like so much of an asset proved to be FSN’s undoing. Any national programming FSN had was prone to being pre-empted for local teams’ games, which meant any entity with a national programming arrangement with FSN automatically had a worse deal than if they were with anyone else (something then-Pac-10 fans especially chafed at in the early-to-mid-00’s), and any national studio shows couldn’t count on a consistent time slot or even consistently airing at all. (I remember how upset I was when the Mariners played an East Coast game that pre-empted “I, Max”, the show Max Kellerman got from FSN upon leaving ESPN, entirely.) Now the rise of the RSN owned by the team playing on it, coupled with the rise of Comcast as an RSN player and aided by Fox’s own actions, has taken Fox’s once-complete hegemony over the RSN marketplace and greatly dismantled it.
Suppose Sinclair were to sign up a much bigger array of content for ASN – major professional sports and major college conferences, maybe some top mid-majors as well – and signed up affiliates from all over the country. And suppose they then launched a cable channel that amounted to an ASN national feed, taking content from their various rights deals and distributing them to a national audience. Sinclair could offer certain ASN programming “nationally” to various ASN stations, but even if that programming were to be rejected or pre-empted for something of local import, Sinclair could simply stick it on the ASN national feed, ensuring truly national distribution for the biggest content Sinclair has. Sinclair could then have an alternate feed to stick on other programming in markets where the main ASN game is airing on the local ASN station. In effect, rather than being inferior to any cable network with decent national distribution, being on the ASN national feed would be a sort of hybrid between being on a national broadcast network and being on an ESPN knockoff.
For ASN to really reach its potential, the FCC (and Congress) would need to fix the broken economics of the broadcast business, where broadcast stations and networks must either embrace the retransmission consent regime and thus see themselves as cable networks first and foremost, or inexorably lose programming to actual cable networks with their decided monetary advantages. Depending on how it’s done, and how the Internet shakes up the live video marketplace, it could completely upend the competitive landscape and destroy the potential of most of the ideas (not to mention the metaphors) in the previous paragraph. But if it happens, here’s the blueprint I would have for ASN to succeed where FSN failed and for the broadcast industry in general to bounce back from the point where its own nominal guardians have turned against it:
- Convince teams, leagues, and conferences that between the FCC’s reforms and the impact of the Internet, the cable network market is badly oversaturated, and given the superiority of the technology of broadcasting (leaving aside the economics and regulatory landscape surrounding it), the regional sports network and league- and conference-owned network, though in better shape than most cable networks, is a bad way to go, especially considering the bitter carriage disputes surrounding them. Convince stations around the country of the same thing and that whatever obstacles they may face in the short term will be outweighed in the long term by eliminating one of the biggest barriers left to widespread cord-cutting.
- Offer to negotiate on behalf of every English-language general-entertainment station not associated with one of the major networks (or a network seriously trying to be one of the major networks), not just ASN stations. Then make a deal with the leagues: so long as there are stations available, every game of a team that claims a given market will be televised, but any game there’s not enough stations for cannot be blacked out on the out-of-market package. This may take the form of an NFL-esque deal where ASN handles the distribution of every team’s game not on a non-ASN national platform. This is especially important for baseball, but allowing the ASN national feed to take content from any station allows the national feed to take content from any team or conference it wants without tipping the scale in negotiations towards ASN stations. (Some side notes: first, “digital subchannels” are a failure and I don’t see them surviving the upcoming FCC-mandated auction and repack; otherwise the ASN national feed might be one. Second, this would be largely dependent on CBS and Fox being open to aiding something that might take a bite out of their main networks in order to maximize the number of stations available in the largest markets; if they aren’t, the FCC might have to repeal or severely tighten the duopoly rules, which could leave Sinclair unable to run ASN. Third, the borders between conferences are blurry enough now that many areas may be within the sphere of influence of multiple conferences, so it may not be possible for ASN to handle them all alone; fortunately, more markets than you think have at least two stations of the type I discuss here even with a fifth network, especially if you count the enigmatic Ion network. And fourth, every game is more than any station has ever showed in a non-NFL professional sport, but in retrospect that practice merely opened the door for the RSN to walk in and undermine independent broadcasters, at least sooner than it could have.)
- The existence of the ASN national feed and rise of the Internet may obviate the need for league-owned networks. Some college conferences (namely the SEC and Big Ten) may be confident of their ability to keep their conference networks going even under the new economics, given the passion of their fanbases. To counter this, export the conferences you do have to the entire country. You don’t have to give national distribution to every single conference, but if most of SEC and Big Ten territory can get ACC or Big 12 games for free (and hopefully, without needing a kludge to get them on a mobile device), and can’t do the same with the SEC and Big Ten, it could put a big scare into the both of them.
- Don’t get involved with the NFL unless it falls in your lap, then snap it up in a heartbeat. Some of your stations are probably going to show NFL preseason games and cable-game simulcasts without your help.
The end result could be a landscape where only two cable sports networks are left: ESPN and the ASN national feed (assuming cable networks themselves still exist as we know them once the Internet is done with them). Things that don’t fit the local team-sports framework like NASCAR and golf would probably go to ESPN, and ESPN would probably still have important maj0r-league pro sports games, but events like the college football national championship game would abandon ship and return to major broadcast networks where they belong, and ASN’s combination of national distribution and local broadcast stations could give it a significant advantage in any negotiations, and they could find themselves in possession of important MLB, NBA, and – perhaps especially – NHL playoff games.
Is this a bit of a utopian pipe dream? Sure – this is the sort of idle imagining I spend way too much of my free time on and then am hesitant to put on the blog because it has so little relation to reality. This one, though, has just enough relation to reality to be an enticing vision for those that believe in broadcast television – and sometimes, a concrete yet distant vision is just what’s needed to be the impetus for change. If the future of broadcast television lies in live sports, this may be the first, halting acknowledgement of that fact – and the start of broadcast television’s comeback. The only problem is, is it too late?