The post we don’t want ESPN to read

Two weeks ago I did a post on the biggest sports TV ratings of 2008, which went beyond its Sports Media Watch inspiration to cover every sports rating I could find over 2.5 (well, 3.0 anyway), and a few over 2.0. I mentioned that I had found the original post to be one of the most useful references I had in the new year. How useful could such a post be? What can we learn from that post?

 

We can learn just how devastating the BCS’ move to ESPN really is.

 

It should hardly be surprising to most people who are paying attention that the BCS Title Game is the biggest event on the sporting calendar outside the NFL or Olympics. It’s got a full two-point margin over its biggest competition, college basketball’s National Championship – but that could easily change with the distribution penalty the Title Game will take from being on cable, especially if the economy drives people to ditch cable or satellite and just go with their antennas. If the depression stretches into 2011, I have a feeling, or at least hope, that ESPN will move at least the Title Game to ABC (and keep the Rose Bowl there).

 

But if what happened to the BCS Title Game is the wave of the future – big sporting events moving to cable en masse – it becomes imperative that we find real competition to ESPN. ESPN will now not only have the biggest sports property on cable, but the top two in the BCS and Monday Night Football. You have to scroll down to 7.9 to find a cable sports rating held by anyone other than ESPN, and 5.4 to find a second (still behind an unusually strong Home Run Derby). Throw out the Red Sox-Rays series, as you undoubtedly will have to do with TBS picking up the weaker NLCS this year, and you have to go down to 4.8.

 

The future could be one where ESPN bullies its way to capturing virtually every sport imaginable, marginalizing all but the biggest to smaller channels like ESPN2, and dominating what gets said in the sports conversation. The allegations that it’s guilty of an East Coast/LA bias show that a monopoly is not really something we can trust ESPN with. But no one’s even daring to challenge ESPN’s dominance. Versus was thought to be trying its hand at it… but last week, its president Jamie Davis, interviewed by the Washington Times, denied that ESPN was “what we want to become” and that “we are trying to serve a fan base that we believe has been underserved in the past”. I’m hopeful that Versus’ prior attempts to take baseball or the NFL reflect that there’s more to this than meets the eye, but I’m not optimistic. Other than ESPN and sport-specific networks, the only other cable networks to even appear on this list are TBS and TNT. We’re in trouble if the closest thing we have to competition for ESPN doesn’t even see itself as a sports network, and the biggest non-ESPN sports network doesn’t see itself as competing with ESPN.

 

Unfortunately, there are pretty slim pickings for a network looking to establish itself as a competitor to ESPN. Aside from the BCS and MNF (and ESPN won’t let go of the latter without a fight with all the NFL programming it has), there’s not much in the way of big events for a cable network to pick out, and before the BCS deal it may have seemed that whatever network controlled the NFL cable contract controlled the world of sports. The NCAA and the major sports are under pressure from Congress to keep their big events on broadcast; the only reason the BCS could shore up with ESPN was because it’s not under the banner of the NCAA, and the non-BCS conferences have been talking about pressing antitrust charges against it anyway.

 

The only options may be those opened up by the BCS deal, namely the Masters, the Triple Crown races, some high-profile college football games like BCS conference championships and the Capitol One Bowl, and the Final Four and earlier rounds of the NCAA Tournament. I don’t know what their relative commitment to broadcast is; the Masters will probably stay on broadcast for a while, and the Cap One could bolt to ESPN at any moment. But ESPN’s second highest rated MNF game got an 8.7, and the above list consists of the only events I could think of that would top even the fourth highest rated game (7.9). The highest rated of the bunch is an SEC Championship at 9.3 that was an effective BCS semifinal, which you can’t count on; #2 is the Cap One Bowl at 9.1. Even 80% of the 14.4 the BCS Title Game received would be an 11.5, two full ratings points ahead (almost 2.5 over the Cap One). (You might be able to throw the Daytona 500 into the mix as well, but THIS year, it fell below 10.0 if my memory serves me correctly…

 

(There’s the Olympics, but the Olympics are still legitimately valuable for the broadcast networks.)

 

The prospects are even bleaker for long-term competition. ESPN has two networks, a connection with a broadcast network, the top sports news web site, a nightly sports highlight show, an international arm, a web-streaming site, a mobile deal and mobile-TV channel, a radio network, a sports news network, a classic sports network that serves as an overflow channel, a college sports network, and a Spanish-language network. To create a compelling bid for just about any sports entity and to truly be seen as an equal with ESPN, you need to be able to compete with almost all those revenue streams.

 

Fox may be the best positioned with Final Score, News Corporation’s international presence, Fox Sports Radio, Fox Soccer Channel, Fox College Sports, and Fox Sports en Espanol. Indeed Rupert Murdoch’s acquisition of most of the regional sports networks was made with creating competition for ESPN in mind, and its failure may have scared off Versus, but what was supposed to be Fox Sports Net’s strength – local programming – turned into its weakness, as many regions pre-empted national programming. The Big 12 and Pac-10 tried to abandon ESPN for a time and put their top cable football games on FSN and TBS, but it only led to people making fun of them for being on FSN. Now FSN has been selling networks like there’s no tomorrow – Chicago, the Bay Area, and New England have all gone from FSN markets to Comcast SportsNet markets, and that’s not counting the ones sold to third parties like FSN New York (now MSG+) or the ones sold to Liberty Media in the DirecTV deal.

 

Ideally, competition for ESPN would reduce the need and demand for ESPN2, by moving some events that would be on ESPN2 to ESPN. The four major networks all have some online presence, though their streaming capacity varies, as does CNN and Time Warner with SI, USA Today, Sporting News, Yahoo Sports, and AOL Sports/Fanhouse. Yahoo in particular may already have the most popular non-ESPN sports site, so if for some unfathomable reason you don’t already have such a presence, shacking up with Yahoo might be a good approach. (NBC is learning of the perils of launching your own site at too late a date.) Alternately, embracing blogs can help with marketing your brand. An international presence is one of the biggest obstacles unless you’re Fox. For radio, Fox Sports Radio and Sporting News Radio are out there, and Westwood One may be an actual competitor for sports rights (which helps CBS, which owns it). CBS has a top-quality college sports network as well, while NBC would be best positioned other than Fox to launch a Spanish-language sports network alongside Telemundo. (There’s a part of me that wonders if the acquisition of what’s now Universal Sports was made with an eye to becoming a competitor to ESPN.)

 

Of the above, I think the most important aspect may be the sports highlight show. It may not get a lot of eyeballs, especially in the age of the Internet, but it helps further that notion that you’re a major player. Even if you get the same number of eyeballs as ESPN for big events, people might not associate you with being a leader in sports. Besides, it’s with time on SportsCenter that ESPN blackmails lesser leagues into joining them, or at least that’s the perception. But you need something to promote. You need a reason for sports fans to come back to your network again and again.

 

Ignoring the NFL, and assuming the BCS moves back to ABC and other big events stay on broadcast, a good way to establish your presence is to have at least an even split of MLB, the NBA, and NASCAR with ESPN. All three are held by ESPN, but all three also have alternate contracts with TBS or TNT, alternate contracts that make them at least equals to ESPN in at least one respect (one LCS, one Conference Finals, and most of the biggest cable races not held at the Brickyard, like the second Daytona race). But even if the Turner networks were to start a sports highlight show and turn one of its networks into a sports hub, they wouldn’t be convincing people to keep coming back again and again nearly as often as ESPN. It’s college sports and other relatively lesser sports that are ESPN’s real hook (not to mention shows like ATH and PTI).

 

For a network to hold up in comparison to ESPN, at least in my view, it needs to at least tie ESPN by comparison. For all practical purposes, it needs to come close to tying ESPN in the ratings. Outside of the NFL, the largest cable sports ratings in 2008 were:

  • 7.9: ALCS Game 7 (TBS)
  • 5.5: Home Run Derby (ESPN)
  • 5.4: ALCS Game 6 (TBS)
  • 4.8: Western Conference Finals Game 4 (TNT)
  • 4.7: ALCS Game 5 (TBS)
  • 4.6: Western Conference Finals Game 5 (TNT)
  • 4.5: Champs Sports Bowl (ESPN)

There’s a pretty small list of events with ratings 4.5 and above. I didn’t like the move of one LCS to cable, partly because only one LCS was moving there. I might have been okay with both LCSes moving to cable, but Fox needs some sort of presence in the playoffs like ABC does, and you see above that the LCSes can be a more significant property than the NBA’s conference finals. Before the BCS deal, a cable sports rating higher than 5.5 or so may have been sacrilege.

 

You also see it driven home that not only is Turner the closest thing to competition to ESPN in terms of events, the three networks combine for every cable sports rating over 3.4 in 2008. (Their high ranking may be because the closest thing they have to a connection to a broadcast network is the CW.) FSN and Versus do not even register on the chart at all, failing to break 2.0 nationally even once – but the list does provide a possible template for which sports to go after. First, they need to keep up with ESPN in the acquisition of big events that are currently on broadcast – the ones like the Masters and (what I think is likeliest) the Triple Crown races. In addition to those and the ones listed alongside them above, the US Open in golf, baseball’s All-Star Game, the World Cup, and the Pro Bowl (which will be on ESPN in 2010) should all be targets.

 

On a larger scale, though, the above list of events that are already on cable provides a basic framework to go after. Simply put: NFL, MLB, NBA. More specifically, the cable NFL package (which I explicitly excluded from this list), Home Run Derby, and the baseball and NBA playoffs. Choose at least one to start building your empire. The easiest picking would probably be baseball, as ESPN is identified too much with its NFL coverage and TNT is identified too much with its NBA coverage. Pick out at least one of the ESPN weekly packages for baseball, plus the Home Run Derby, plus at least a piece of TBS’ playoff coverage. TBS’ Sunday afternoon games are almost a complete flop.

 

There isn’t much need to go after much else, because taking something away from Turner creates a nice balance between ESPN, Turner, and what I’ll call EK, for ESPN Killer. As long as you seize the Home Run Derby and, if necessary, at least one LCS, you can throw ESPN whatever’s left of the bone you want. And it’s very much within the grasp of Versus to follow through on this in my opinion.

 

Let’s continue down the list below 4.5:

  • 4.3: Spurs/Hornets Game 7 (TNT)
  • 4.3: Eastern Conference Finals Game 5 (ESPN)
  • 4.3: Allstate 400 at the Brickyard (ESPN)
  • 4.3: Miami (FL) @ Florida (ESPN)
  • 4.2: Eastern Conference Finals Game 6 (ESPN)
  • 4.2: USC @ Oregon State (ESPN)
  • 4.1: Western Conference Finals Game 1 (TNT)
  • 4.1: Tennessee @ UCLA, Labor Day (ESPN)
  • 4.1: ALCS Game 1 (TBS)
  • 4.0: Eastern Conference Finals Game 4 (ESPN)
  • 4.0: Emerald Bowl (ESPN)
  • 3.9: Pocono 500 (TNT)
  • 3.9: Alabama @ Georgia (ESPN)
  • 3.9: Angels/Red Sox Game 3 (TBS)
  • 3.9: Meineke Car Care Bowl (ESPN)
  • 3.9: Alamo Bowl (ESPN)
  • 3.9: Holiday Bowl (ESPN)
  • 3.8: NBA All-Star Game (TNT)
  • 3.8: Coke Zero 400 (TNT)
  • 3.8: Pennsylvania 500 (ESPN)
  • 3.8: ALCS Game 2 (TBS)
  • 3.8: ALCS Game 4 (TBS)

Highlights of this relatively small section include the second NBA contract – the one with ESPN’s half of the conference finals – plus both NASCAR contracts, the NBA All-Star Game, and both regular season and postseason college football games. Only one NASCAR contract and the NBA All-Star Game are on Turner. The rest are on cable.

 

I’ll get to college football in a second. It goes without saying you want a piece of that action, preferably the top cable contract (not second fiddle like FSN and Versus get with the Big 12 and Pac-10). Throw out the regular season college football, and you want to limit ESPN to half of the second NBA contract, both NASCAR contracts, and bowl games. The bowl games can be thrown out as well, but if both LCSes move to cable, the contract that includes the second LCS comes into play here.

 

Basically, claim one, and make sure you have no less than one less of what ESPN has. As Turner’s only presence is one of the NASCAR contracts, you probably have to take on ESPN directly here.

 

I’m going to start my discussion of college with the regular-season conferences, which take care of your needs in football and basketball, so the consideration of balance needs to be made with regards to both. In football, the two “weakling” conferences are the ACC and Big East. In basketball, the two “weaklings” are the Big 12 and Pac-10. Claiming one of each leads to the obvious conclusion that you need to claim one of the remaining two conferences, the SEC or Big 10.

 

It’s been suggested that recent megacontracts signed with the latter two conferences will give them an edge over the field, especially in college football, so signing a deal with both the Big 12 and Pac-10 and thinking that counts just as well towards your three will lead to a perception you’re signing with two runts, or positioning yourself as a “West Coast network”, especially in conjunction with the Mountain West. I’m looking at you, Versus. But there are major problems going on here. ESPN doesn’t want to give up the Big East because they’re in Bristol near UConn, they don’t want to give up the ACC because they don’t want to lose Duke-UNC, they don’t want to give up the Big Ten and lose Ohio State-Michigan (even though that technically airs on ABC), and you just missed the boat on a hefty 15-year deal with the SEC. Sports on TV as we know it could be dying by the time that deal ends.

 

The Big 12 and Pac-10 already play a basketball series against one another, so why not split the difference on the other two series, ACC/Big 10 and SEC/Big East? That means the other two conferences are either the SEC and ACC, or the Big 10 and Big East. Whatever you go with, you need to have the first pick of cable networks for at least one conference, and the more bones you throw ESPN the more you need to build your empire even further to compensate.

 

(The Mountain West could become a BCS conference soon, but the reasons they moved to Versus and the mind-boggling lack of flex scheduling suggest they don’t want Versus to develop the regimentation of time slots in football ESPN has, which is probably required by having so many conferences. That could cut it out of the discussion, and the Mountain West is generally in the lower portion of the BCS conferences anyway.)

 

Non-BCS conferences are also an important part of the picture, but I’ll get to that later.

 

What about bowls? FSN’s not going after any, that’s for sure, because of local hockey and NBA coverage. Versus doesn’t want bowls because they want “total immersion” or some such malarkey, but it seems to me that the Las Vegas Bowl – top-line Mountain West against a team from another Versus conference, the Pac-10 – would be perfect for them, serving as a continuation of the “immersion” Versus already provides for those two conferences. Turner has zero presence at the bowls, meaning ESPN dominates the bowl landscape. 23 of 35 bowls, nearly two-thirds, are on ESPN (two more on ABC, the BCS Title Game to air there next year, and three more to move to ESPN in the form of the BCS, bringing the total to over 80%); ESPN is the chief beneficiary of the proliferation of bowls. Not all bowls are equal, but sadly, ESPN tends to lump in even its top bowls with bowls like the Independence Bowl or New Orleans Bowl in its “Bowl Week” promotion.

 

I averaged the 2005-6 through 2007-8 ratings of all the bowls and came up with these average ratings for the non-BCS bowls (courtesy here):

  1. Capitol One (6.7)
  2. Chick-fil-A (5.0)
  3. Alamo (4.7)
  4. Holiday (4.5)
  5. Cotton (3.63)
  6. Liberty (3.56)
  7. Gator (3.47)
  8. Emerald (3.41)
  9. Outback (3.37)
  10. Meineke Car Care (3.04)
  11. Champs Sports (2.96)
  12. Music City (2.8)
  13. Independence (2.6)
  14. Sun (2.4)
  15. Motor City (2.32)
  16. Las Vegas (2.28)
  17. Armed Forces (2.10)
  18. Hawaii (2.07)
  19. Papajohns.com (1.97)
  20. New Mexico (1.89)
  21. Humanitarian (1.58)
  22. GMAC (1.56)
  23. Insight/New Orleans (tie) (1.55)
  24. International (1.45)
  25. Poinsettia (1.447)
  26. Texas (1.3)

Some notes: The EagleBank and St. Petersburg bowls only started this year and aren’t counted. Ratings for the Texas and Insight bowls are depressed by being on NFL Network. Ratings for the Outback Bowl are depressed by airing at 11 AM ET (8 AM PT) against many other bowls, and it deserves better ratings given its conference tie-ins and payout money. Fixing its gametime problem, either by moving to a saner hour or earlier in the week, should be a top priority for the Outback the next time its contract comes up for renewal.

 

And a shocking number of the highest-rated bowls are on cable.

 

The broadcast non-BCS bowls are the Cap One on ABC, the Gator and Sun on CBS, and the Cotton on Fox. The Chick-fil-A, Alamo, and Holiday bowls all beat all the broadcast bowls except the Cap One, and the Liberty Bowl beats both CBS bowls. The position of the Sun on broadcast despite iffy ratings is probably because of the potential of Notre Dame going there, which also explains why the Gator and Sun are on broadcast instead of better conference tie-ins. (Both bowls have their potential Big 12 tie-ins ranking behind the Holiday, and ditto for the Sun’s Pac-10 #3. When the Sun picks a Big 12 team it picks behind the Alamo, and the Gator’s ACC #3 pick is behind the Chick-fil-A… which itself picks its SEC pick after the Outback.)

 

Based on these ratings, the bowl payouts, and more than anything else the quality of the conference tie-ins, I came up with a ranking of the non-BCS bowls:

  1. Capitol One
  2. Cotton
  3. Outback
  4. Chick-fil-A
  5. Holiday
  6. Gator
  7. Alamo
  8. Champs Sports
  9. Sun
  10. Liberty
  11. Music City
  12. Emerald
  13. Meineke Car Care
  14. Insight
  15. Independence
  16. Las Vegas
  17. Motor City
  18. GMAC
  19. Humanitarian
  20. Hawaii
  21. Poinsettia
  22. Armed Forces
  23. Papajohns.com
  24. International
  25. New Mexico
  26. New Orleans
  27. St. Petersburg
  28. EagleBank
  29. Texas

I identified several subdivisions where the comparison was closer than others. If you’re running EK, you’re paying attention to this list of conference tie-ins, but you’re ALSO paying attention to the above list of TV ratings. The latter is what you really want, but you can turn the former into the latter if you try. Assuming the broadcast/cable status quo holds, that means, from a TV rating perspective, an emphasis on the Alamo, Chick-fil-A, and Holiday. Throw the Outback on there, since its conference tie-ins warrant it, and the Champs Sports after its gerbonkers ratings this year. I’m tempted to add the Liberty as well for its ratings and position on the tie-in list, but that’s opening up a can of worms. Of the first five, claim two – and make sure at least one more is taken from ESPN if one of the bowls you claim is the Champs Sports. (Replace the Champs Sports with the Liberty if you want.)

 

So we consider the Liberty (or Champs Sports), we throw in the Emerald and the Music City to fill the gap, and throw in the Meineke Car Care bowl as well. Split them half and half? Maybe. Consider, too, though, that the Insight would probably get better ratings if it were off NFL Network. Fairness dictates you also consider the Independence and Las Vegas bowls, and may-y-ybe the Motor City Bowl. Everything else is comparatively minor and not worth worrying about, but it might still be worth going after anyway.

 

(Note that most people don’t see it this way. A matchup between two BCS conferences is all they see that’s valuable. The Las Vegas Bowl is valued much lower than this by most people. The Pac-10 is considered to deserve better for its fourth or fifth line. The Mountain West actually does deserve better for its first – though it would suddenly make some sense on the off chance the MWC joins the BCS. Why the Liberty Bowl ranks so highly is beyond me, but tradition probably has a lot to do with it.)

 

Look at the ratings chart. By seizing only the bowls that matter, you’ve pretty much guaranteed yourself that your bowl coverage will almost exclusively (maybe one exception, two if you’re unlucky) get ratings large enough to make my end-of-year chart. Some bowls are better for this than others; I recommend getting bowls that align with your own conference tie-ins. If you’re going the SEC/ACC route, pick up the Chick-fil-A bowl and either the Holiday, Outback, Champs Sports, or Liberty Bowl (or a combination of two of those, preferably not Champs Sports AND Liberty). The Alamo might be an option as well if you have a tie-in with the Big 12. For the second tier, pick up the Music City Bowl and one other; if you pick up the Pac-10, that one other should probably be the Emerald. If you pick up the Big 12 instead, in addition to whatever you do pick the Independence Bowl is a good investment.

 

If you go with the Big 10 and Big East, a lot depends on your third conference. Align with the Big 12, and the Alamo becomes a must. Even without it that and the Holiday are good choices, though the Outback is an option as well. In the second tier the Meineke Car Care bowl is almost a must-have, just to be sure you have a Big East bowl; the Big East’s other non-broadcast bowl tie-ins fall below the cut line. The Champs Sports becomes a must if you’re aligned with the Big 12, unless ESPN throws you an SEC or ACC bone (unless you’re with Conference USA, as we’ll get to later); otherwise the Emerald Bowl is also an option. Pick up the Big 12 and the Insight is a good investment, maybe even imperative (they’ll certainly be begging to be taken off NFL Network), as well (the Big 10 and Big 12 have a lot of bowl tie-ins with each other). With the Big Ten, the Motor City becomes very interesting indeed.

 

A note on non-BCS conferences, because if you have just three BCS conferences ESPN can still push itself as the leader in college sports (and you can’t launch a college sports channel to compete with ESPNU). Non-BCS conferences become especially important with the splitting of the BCS conferences, because they could well get more play as gap-fillers. (Especially if you launch a competitor to ESPN2.) In football, there are four non-BCS conferences that matter: the Mountain West, WAC, MAC, and Conference USA. The Sun Belt is too crappy to matter, although taking away one conference like the Mountain West to Versus arguably means we should put the Sun Belt back in to replace it. But before splitting the difference we need to consider the very different scenario in college basketball.

 

The goal in college basketball, in my view, is to render BracketBusters meaningless outside of what we might call the “low-majors” or even “minors”. A comparison of four-year average RPI shows that, despite the lack of distinction I make in my annual “mid-major conference”, there is a distinction between one “higher” class of mid-major conference, and most of the other conferences, not as large as the gap between the majors and the mid-majors, but significant nonetheless – and in fact there’s a definite spectrum, where some conferences are fairly objectively better than others, even if the rankings of the conferences in-between are far from clear.

 

The Mountain West, mired on Versus, doesn’t participate in BracketBusters. Is that because they want to see themselves as a major conference, or because ESPN is excluding a conference that doesn’t have a deal with them? If someone took away enough mid-majors, you wouldn’t want ESPN to put conferences into BracketBusters far ahead of the rest of the field simply because they had a deal with them, would you? That would appear to be favoritism.

 

Three conferences in particular are strong enough to occasionally approach the status of the major conferences. I dare you to find a conference since the shake-up of Conference USA to finish first among the mid-majors not named the Missouri Valley, the Mountain West, and the Atlantic 10. The Mountain West is mired on Versus and ESPN sometimes seems unnaturally obsessed with the A-10 in mid-major terms, leaving the Valley for EK – although after several years of the Valley occasionally finishing ahead of the major conferences in conference RPI, they finished behind the A-10 last year and similarly have only one serious at-large contender this year, so they may be on the decline.

 
The other true mid-majors are Conference USA, the WAC, the WCC, the CAA, the MAC, and the Horizon League. The Sun Belt is in a weird in-between state between the mid-majors and the low-majors, though they’re closer to the low majors. Obviously, those six should be split half and half, but use caution. Conference USA and the WCC are both more valuable than the middle-pack teams in their league would suggest, because of the presence of major-caliber programs Memphis and Gonzaga respectively. (C-USA actually has a very slight lead over the A-10, in fact.) We’ve seen just how much Gonzaga adds to the value of the WCC to ESPN. Taking at least one of those is imperative, even if you otherwise discount the value of the mid-majors, and no way ESPN is letting you take both.
On the flip side, there’s a danger in putting both West Coast leagues on one network, especially paired with the Mountain West (the MWC and WAC together is enough of a concern for football), and getting branded as a “West Coast” network. So: either C-USA and WAC or WCC and MAC, with the CAA and Horizon split whichever way works out (although the Horizon is on average worse than the other mid-majors, except for Butler which may be joining Memphis/Gonzaga as major programs). The remaining conferences are like minor bowls: go after them, but don’t make them a priority.
(While you’re at it, pick up that “College Basketball Invitational” oddity to make it stronger – they’re trying to be an NIT competitor, not the third-tier tournament – and balance ESPN’s coverage of the NIT.)
Those are the important parts. But there are other things you should keep in mind if you really want to create a viable competitor to ESPN:
  • Golf often gets forgotten in the “major sports”, with all the talk of the modern Big Four (NFL, NBA, MLB, NASCAR) and the two college sports, but its ratings are on par with any other, even for certain non-majors Tiger doesn’t attend, and it even gets coverage on par from ESPN and others, even if it sometimes seems Tiger-centric. The whole sport has been moving to Golf Channel in recent years on all levels, increasing the importance of the majors. ESPN just claimed the entire British Open for its cable network, and the other majors could follow; even for those majors that stay on broadcast, coverage of the first two rounds is important. Split them half and half, and make sure it’s not a situation where you have two first-two-rounds contracts and ESPN has two whole-tournament contracts.
  • The NHL and IRL (along with tennis) are significantly ahead of most of the other detritus, like MLS and the WNBA, that make up the high-minor sports. These sorts of things are the mid-majors, and both of these two in particular are ESPN’s bread and butter. But ESPN may be smarting from losing the IRL and the NHL may be smarting from losing ESPN. We can allow ESPN to reclaim one, but not both.
  • Soccer has a lot of levels and competitions, and ideally there should be plenty for you. In fact true soccer connosieurs have plenty of options for their soccer palate beyond ESPN, including Fox Soccer Channel, which currently has US rights to the English Premier League and Italy’s Serie A. ESPN is making a solid play for the Premier League, and it may appear that EK’s best approach is the third European major league, the Spanish league. But both Spain and the German Bundesliga have their outpost on GOL TV, and those who have it, from what I’ve read, like it far better than Fox Soccer; the problem is it has limited distribution, and because of a bilingual gimmick is often consiged to Spanish-language packages. I don’t think it’s owned by a larger conglomerate at the moment, so trying to hitch your wagon to it and trying to grow its distribution might be a good idea. (ESPN was once rumored to be turning ESPN Classic into its own soccer network.) If all else (including, if need be, France or Mexico) fails, there’s always MLS.
  • But really, all these pale in comparison to the major soccer competitions worldwide: the World Cup, the European Championship (the title game of which, which the US has no stake in, registered on my chart, thus more than doubling almost any MLS game), and the UEFA Champions League. And all three run on ESPN. That needs to change.
  • Tennis is the same as golf. ESPN just triumphantly claimed all four of tennis’ Grand Slams, inheriting the US Open after USA pulled out of sports. The US Open considered an offer from Versus, which would have been great for Versus, bad for the USTA, and good for anyone looking for an ESPN competitor. (Now that we know Versus is the wrong place to look for one, it’s just all bad.) As with golf, split the difference.
  • Other sports: MMA? (UFC runs on Spike and sister promotion WEC runs on Versus. Various competitors keep springing up.) Horse racing? (NBC runs two Triple Crown races and ABC runs one, while ESPN runs the Breeder’s Cup.) Poker? (Look up Poker on Wikipedia and, along with ESPN’s World Series of Poker, the World Poker Tour is credited with poker’s rise in popularity. After getting placed on odd networks like the Travel Channel and GSN, it’s now on once-ESPN competitor FSN.) Lacrosse? (Split between ESPN’s outdoor MLL and the indoor, and barely covered stateside, NLL.) “Action sports”? Outdoor programming like fishing? Rodeo? (The PBR already runs on Versus.) Volleyball? Bowling? Cricket? Rugby? Don’t forget those high minors of MLS, WNBA (probably hitched to the NBA), and Arena Football (which ESPN partially owns right now and which is collapsing anyway).

This is really more important than any other consideration right now: it’s even harder to rise up to the level of ESPN right now. ESPN will stumble through the recession like any other business, but to try and start a competitor from scratch may be suicide. In retrospect, the last glimmer of a window for at least several years, maybe ever, for a competitor to ESPN may have closed this past fall with the SEC and BCS deals; for there to not even be a network on the rise, the closest things being FSN and Versus (and Turner if they wanted to become a full-fledged sports destination), does not bode well for any real challenger to ESPN to show up anytime soon. The one saving grace is that an ESPN stumbling through recession is an ESPN with less money to spend on rights fees, but chances are a potential ESPN competitor is hemmoraging money as well, or doesn’t have any and is finding it hard to get any starting capital. Although it’ll claim it’s not a monopoly because of the existence of the broadcast networks and competing sports sites, all things considered, it’s ESPN’s world and we’re all just paying the rent, and realistically, that’s not changing in the near future.

Something everyone missed in the BCS-ESPN thing…

I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve read about how cable networks have the advantage of subscriber fees, which have driven rights fees to the point where most sports are loss leaders for broadcast networks anymore…

…wait, Fox actually turned a profit on the BCS? Why does this get a single sentence in a single story?

I’m actually tempted to find the e-mail address of a BCS commissioner and e-mail this to them.

The major news of the past week in sports arguably had nothing to do with any game that was actually played, or any athlete. It was ESPN making a bid for the rights to the BCS that would have put all five games – including the Rose Bowl they already have a contract through 2014 for – on ESPN, not ABC. It may be too late to do anything about it even if Da Blog had some audience, as Fox’s deadline is already up today and they aren’t matching the offer. Only serving as a backdrop to that news is ESPN signing up for British Open rights and NASCAR’s Heidi Game. I didn’t have much to say on the subject for Da Blog last week, so this post will largely serve as a commentary to the commentary already posted on Sports Media Watch and Fang’s Bites. And Eye on Sports Media, but only the part about the NASCAR “AFHV Race” has been posted yet.

But I do have some original thoughts on the matter:

This is the exact opposite of what should be happening.

Yet any observer should have seen it coming from a mile away, just not this soon.

Before I begin, let me just make a note: This post has nothing to do with your opinion on a college football playoff, or whether moving the BCS to ESPN helps or hurts the playoff cause. As much as the BCS may stink, it’s the system we have, and it’s in everyone’s best interest to make sure it’s as strong as possible except when it comes to a playoff, because when the BCS is strong college football is strong.

Remember back in August, when I got all hot and bothered about the digital transition and talked about how antennas are still around and better than ever, and conscientious consumers who have no need for cable channels had no reason to keep subscribing to cable or satellite? And how the digital transition made it possible for broadcast television and its multitude of subchannels to potentially give cable a run for its money?

Ideally we’d be seeing already a depowering of cable and a bulking up of broadcast’s muscle. The BCS should be scared to death of the potential lost audience and stature brought by moving to ESPN, if not by the potential ridiculousness of most of the major college football games and – for the moment – four non-BCS bowls airing on broadcast but the biggest bowls of them all airing on pay TV, where about 10% of the audience now (and that number, while it will shrink in the short term, is only going to grow) won’t be able to see them. And 10% is not trivial; the National Championship and Rose Bowl are the only two bowls that regularly draw that much of the total audience between broadcast and cable.

But in that same post, I also mentioned that no one has an interest in telling you to ditch cable and/or the dish. The cable companies don’t have an interest, the providers are too small, peripheral, and one-time to have a credible interest, the regulatory agencies have had eight years of not having an interest, even TV stations themselves have no interest even as they advertise the transition, advertisements that are mostly about not losing the customers they have.

That last point might not necessarily be the case, certainly for the broadcast networks (unless they nip a piece of their stations’ retransmission-consent deals), because this might be for their very survival.

Really, the only reason ESPN airs any sports bigger than the WNBA is because they have an unfair natural advantage over broadcast networks. They collect a piece of subscriber fees from cable companies and broadcast networks do not. These days, almost all sports is little more than a loss leader for the Big Four networks (except maybe the Super Bowl and Olympics), there only to serve as a platform to promote other programming. (For this reason, there may come a day where to stay on broadcast, a sporting event would need to rate higher than primetime programming. For that reason, there’s a part of me that’s wondering what the chances are/would have been for the CW or My Network TV, two networks that struggle even to break 2 ratings with their best programming, to swoop to the rescue here.) Judging by a comment on the SMW post, that might not even be because of production costs (although other than news, sports is the only thing networks produce themselves), but simply because the rise of cable channels like ESPN has hiked rights fees to the moon. (If broadcast networks want to keep doing sports, they might want to do what I suggested in the last paragraph and take a piece of stations’ retransmission-consent deals.)

(In my opinion, neither ABC nor especially Fox really gave the BCS enough of a big-event feel to serve its promotional purpose. Except in years like the one when USC and Texas met, March Madness feels bigger than the BCS, even when the BCS National Championship is consistently higher rated. I suggest the BCS Championship Game be moved to a weekend to allow for a semi-lengthy pregame show. Of course, part of the problem is also that there’s no playoff to build anticipation to the championship game.)

Sports Media Watch considers a world in which just about every major sporting event could potentially move to cable. If this goes through, it would have to be only a matter of time before the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs moved exclusively to Versus or ESPN in the United States, and the MLS Cup would probably also make such a move. Those are the boneheaded, obvious moves. Had the IRL made its recent deal with Versus after the BCS made their move, they might not have blinked twice about moving the Indy 500 to cable as well. Tennis’ majors might, for the most part, become cable-exclusive. Those are still boneheadedly obvious considered in the context of the British Open deal.

No, SMW raises a boogeyman that – whether Paulsen realizes it or not – has been around virtually since the instant ESPN landed its first NFL deal: the prospect of people having to pay to watch the Super Bowl. It hasn’t happened yet, but paying to watch the BCS is surely a giant step. With everything the BCS is higher rated than, this creates the very plausible scenario of the World Series, NBA Finals, March Madness, Daytona 500, horse racing’s Triple Crown, and the other three golf majors – and maybe even early rounds of the NFL playoffs – moving to cable as well. Leagues that have to worry about losing an antitrust exemption from Congress, such as the NFL and MLB, might reluctantly turn down such an offer, but the BCS is only five bowls so it doesn’t have to worry about such a thing. You might think the NCAA would be thinking of their students but an inexorable drive to ESPN has been happening there as well (the Women’s Final Four was on CBS not that long ago). I don’t even know if the NBA has an exemption to worry about.

Paulsen ends with: “While sporting events on broadcast still draw the highest ratings, the relative success of Monday Night Football and baseball’s League Championship Series on cable is evidence that the majority of the television audience can find marquee events on any network. At this point, broadcast television no longer needs sports, and vice versa.”

Um, no, sports does still need broadcast television thank you very much. If the BCS moves to ESPN, it’s only one step in a long-running expensivization of sports, from rising ticket prices (and evidence that if sports teams charged market rate prices would be WAY higher) to the rise of ESPN and beyond. If sports keeps raising the price of admission for everything as far as it will go, especially in poor, blue-collar areas like Detroit, it will lose its soul. It will stop being a point of civic pride for people of all means and become a form of entertainment for the rich. If the BCS moves to cable it will surely dilute ratings for the entire season (the next two seasons’ MLB ratings on Fox may be a referendum on this, given the drama that played out in the ALCS on TBS); why follow the play for free when you can’t afford to see the climax?

And broadcast television still needs sports, if not for its own sake as a vehicle for advertising other programming then symbolically. The death of sports on broadcast is the death of broadcast, period. One need only see the role of the NFL in the rise of Fox to see the impact sports can have – or more ominously, the decline of NBC between losing the NBA and gaining the NFL (a decline that admittedly may or may not have anything to do with those two events). But more practically, if broadcast can’t compete with cable for sports rights, who’s to say it can compete with cable for anything else? Already news divisions at the Big Three are in decline from competition from cable and the Internet. If sports follows suit, could entertainment be far behind? Could better-heeled (and less-censored) cable networks like USA and TBS and especially HBO and Showtime lure away top talent and prized shows? If broadcast television’s only financial advantage is to the consumer, soon it might not be worth that much. As they say, it’s all about money.

I should note that unlike Fang’s Bites, I don’t believe ESPN is trying to actively kill sports on ABC. When Fang wonders how much Disney prized MNF as a property for ABC that it let it go to ESPN, he conveniently swallows the ESPN propaganda and ignores that what ESPN is airing now isn’t really the inheritor of the MNF legacy. The NFL wanted to move the main primetime package to Sunday nights and ABC wasn’t willing to give up its Desperate HousewivesGrey’s Anatomy one-two punch on Sundays it had at the time. The MNF on ESPN now is really a continuation of ESPN’s prior Sunday night package, not the legacy of Frank, Howard and Dandy Don, which now lives on NBC with Al Michaels. (As a commenter on Fang’s post points out, for ESPN to have lost the NFL entirely would mean losing a significant part of its value and thus the decision had little to do with MNF’s value to ABC – which would have been diluted tremendously – and everything to do with its value to ESPN.) If ABC were not part of the same family as ESPN they may well have made the same decision.

And keep in mind that ABC added NASCAR racing, Heidi Race or no, after losing MNF, and although it never has any shot to run the Daytona 500 in any given year it does air the entire Chase for the Sprint Cup, something NBC wasn’t doing. And for all that Saturday is a wasteland, it was also after losing MNF that ABC gave up whatever it could have made by programming even the old “Wonderful World of Disney” in that time slot to air college football, succeeding well enough (and incidentially, according enough of a big-event feel) that some people want other networks and other sports to follow suit (where before it would have just been me). ABC has given up the British Open and ESPN isn’t giving it a return to the BCS, but in the latter case Fox is giving up on the BCS as well, and it’s telling that CBS and NBC aren’t stepping in.

But here’s the thing: the departure of sports from broadcast affects you even if you’re a cable subscriber. Right now, ESPN charges cable operators more than any other network. The top ten cable networks in terms of price charged to cable operators are also populated primarily by sports networks, and this is a big hang-up in the NFL Network’s dealings with cable operators. Those costs get passed on to you, and they are attributable to the value of sports in so many manifold ways to so many people, but especially the NFL. Your cable bill could shoot to the moon if ESPN acquires a property potentially bigger even than MNF.

And in this, there may be a silver lining – as well as a warning to the BCS and something of a duty. The FCC has been pushing for the institution of “a la carte” selection for cable channels, on the grounds that people should not pay for channels they don’t watch. Small cable channels have been pushing back against such a requirement, arguing they couldn’t survive in such an environment, but they barely survive anyway and they could gain some new viewers who were not willing to pay for large packages or whose cable operators can now add more channels because they don’t have to pay for every subscriber, watching or not, for each one. The real losers could be the larger cable channels like ESPN, which lose the services of people who aren’t watching them and can’t substantially raise prices or they’ll just lose more people. That will mean less money and less resources to provide better sports coverage, but perhaps more to the point, it will mean less money to spend towards rights fees (and less of an audience if some people decide they won’t get ESPN for the sake of one or two games). ESPN could still have some natural advantage, but broadcast networks will be able to play on a more level playing field – and that’s when everyone will be able to win again.

I delayed four weeks for THIS?

I never said I was going to have only two posts on the state of TV heading into the digital transition. I had every intention of doing more, and in fact I was inspired to write this post nearly four weeks ago, towards the end of the Olympics, when I watched a special commemorating 50 years of local CBS affiliate KIRO. Of course that means quite a bit of the special has faded from memory, especially as my watching was a bit off and on, but still, how exciting to be taken back to the heady days of the 1950s, when television was a wild and wooly place! Nobody knew what the heck they were doing, all the ground rules were still being laid in place, everyone was a trailblazer, and people were still trying to figure out this glowy box thing. Why, you had to operate a station with a few boxes, a few wires, and a small box for a studio! Not really, but you’d probably hear something of the sort.

In those days, you had to innovate to set yourself apart, and what set KIRO apart was one of the longest-running, most-beloved non-PBS kids shows perhaps ever, the J.P. Patches show. Every week, every day people from up and down the Sound would flip on their TV to watch a more-serious-than-most clown nonetheless get into wacky hijinks with more supporting castmates than you could shake a stick at, and all the bad jokes, wordplay, and even bones to the parents you’d expect from a low-budget kids’ show, all completely improvised. We didn’t need no stinking Captain Kangaroo, no siree! Unless you’re from around here you probably never even heard of J.P. Patches, and that’s just as it should be, but if you’re my age you’re probably just scratching your head no matter where you live. And that’s not even the only KIRO show to get its own Wikipedia article, odd as it sounds, and doubtless there are countless other markets that had their own wacky clowns and their own B-movie hosts, especially on those independent stations that really had to innovate to set themselves apart. Where did Mystery Science Theatre 3000 come from? Here in Seattle we even used to have a Saturday Night Live ripoff!

What happened to that? Where are the J.P. Patches and Cryptkeeper wannabees of the world? I grew up on Sesame Street and Nick Junior, and we hardly even turn on any sort of channel when we want to watch a movie. What on Earth has happened to local TV?

You want to know what a typical local TV schedule is like these days? If you’re with one of the Big Three, it’s all network, network, network all day long. Whatever time you don’t have to set aside for network or other purposes, you load it up with syndicated Oprah rip-offs, court shows, old TV shows (by “old” I mean “about three to ten years and probably still on the air, and we’re not talking Star Trek-like cult classics either, only the hits”), game shows, and oh yes, tabloid shows. The local news is the only thing local stations produce themselves anymore, and they take a lot of pride in it, but local news is very good at putting forth the same basic template and copying it across the nation, and it’s not always all that good a template – loaded with stock footage, stupid “don’t go away!” tricks, sappy “human-interest” stories, and an ignorance of real news in favor of “The Crime Report”. Name me one thing someone in Tampa is getting that they couldn’t get just as well in Phoenix or Minneapolis. It seems like no TV station these days is unique – you get your ABC over here, your NBC over there, your CBS in the other corner. Heck, just look at what the stations call themselves! They used to take pride in their call letters, but now they just define themselves by what the suits in New York send to them – it’s all “ABC 7” this and “CBS 2” that!

Independent stations? They don’t even EXIST anymore – the really great ones have hopped on board the Fox network, with whatever’s left flocking to UPN and the WB, and now the CW and “My Network TV”, the latter mostly to avoid having to lapse back into being an independent (more on this in a later post you can expect in about four weeks :). Fox doesn’t load down the schedule with morning shows or soaps no one cares about anymore, but what do you see on your local Fox station instead? If you guessed “syndicated crap even FEWER people care about than soaps” give yourself a hand! You can hold out hope for local sports on CW or My Network, but the network doesn’t want to see preemptions get in the way of their fun, so we see the Fox Sports Net channels get their dominance that just drives people further away from otherwise perfectly good antennas. (And that’s not the whole story: we have an independent here in Seattle, but the Mariners and recently-departed Sonics don’t use it, and the last time the Mariners were on broadcast television it was on the CW station. Blame the need to get on other stations in other markets with those games, which is too much of a hassle.)

Locally produced TV’s not dead – there are local shows on the NBC and ABC stations here where I live – but they are the VAST exception. Cable has pushed out a lot of the audience and local stations, in addition to having to work with a small market compared to the whole nation, don’t get a cut of cable subscriber fees. (The “retransmission-consent” scam is an attempt to change that, but I’m not seeing it changing this.) Local stations are all about cost-cutting; no way they’re going to take on the expense of producing anything except news for themselves! They don’t have to pay the costs of production, heck they might not even have to pay anything to the syndicators, they can just give them some of the ad space! Nothing really changes from place to place, you just see some of the syndicated shows hop to different channels and time slots!

When you hear people talk about the homogenization, the “McDonaldization” of America? This is what they’re talking about. For whatever reason, the TV industry has decided that one of the largest nations in the world, and the third most populous, should be funneled the same, copycat shows no matter where they live. (Except when it comes to sports, which is why people in Kansas City can’t watch the Patriots games that might be interesting because they’d supposedly all rather watch their crap team, and if they don’t like it they gotta get DirecTV. Have I mentioned that I think that if there’s any sports level that has earned the right to have every single game carried nationally it’s the NFL?) If I go to New Orleans, will I see anything on TV there that reflects the rich cultural heritage of the Cresent City? How about if I go to Miami? Or even San Francisco? (Actually, those two might be bad examples, but for disturbing reasons. The Spanish-language stations are very strong in Miami – but they’re basically the same crap as the English-language stations just in a different language and all the syndicated stuff replaced with more network stuff – and there are quite a few ethnically-oriented independents in SF. Still, what about the rich cultural heritage of Boston or Philadelphia or even Atlanta or Detroit? Will I see that reflected in the TV there, other than the news anchors’ fake accents?)

What the hell is the point of TV stations anymore, especially since no one uses antennas? The CW especially just seems like a cable network that you happen to be able to catch over the air. They’re little more than repeaters of whatever crap the network hurls their way, just with occasional local news breaks. Is this really what we’ve sunk to? I wouldn’t even mind if some of this stuff was just syndicated in a certain region, but that only happens with sports. Do we really think the people of Portland (Seattle is better than most markets, especially at its size between #10-20) and the people of Atlanta and the people of Texas and the people of Boston and the people of San Diego and the people of Cleveland all deserve the same stuff with a few adjustments for the local news? The famed “red state-blue state” divide says we’re NOT one homogenous group and that’s what makes America great. But TV has always been slow to reflect that heterogeny. I’d like to think I could have a “Seattle experience” that reflects more than just my sports teams, and that the first flag I could put up to mark myself as a Seattleite, assuming I couldn’t use my sports teams, wouldn’t be the meaningless “206”. But I’m digressing into other various topics.

(And I haven’t even gotten into how so many of these stations are owned by companies that are almost entirely dedicated to running what amount to repeaters, and don’t seem to be in the business of making them anything but, don’t have any plan to make them stand out.)

Read on for a SPECIAL OFFER on Television(r)!

In the past couple of days I have come to realize that there is a far deeper problem with the effort to spread awareness about the transition to digital television than anything I hinted at in my mock PSA, and it has to do with its seeming irrelevancy to the vast majority of the general public. So, as a public service and in an effort to inform as well as possible, I’m going to spell out for some people in my target audience/age group who may be confused as to exactly what’s going on here:

You know antennas? You know, those things your parents and grandparents used to watch TV on?

(Okay, back in the day your parents had to take a little round base with two metal sticks on it and attach that to the TV instead of a big box or just a cable in the wall, and they would have to jiggle the sticks around in order to get a picture…)

Well, those rabbit-ears are still around, and you can still hook them up to a TV and watch TV on them. Without going through a cable or satellite company. Yes, you can get HD too. There are hundreds of stations across the country, sending out signals for miles around, that you can pick up by sticking an antenna into your TV.

Those ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and so on, channels on your cable lineup? Those “local channels” the cable and satellite companies are always going on about? Not only can you pick them up off of cable or satellite, you can pick them up with an antenna as well.

For free.

Oh, you have to buy the antenna, but you know how the cable and satellite companies whine about how the other keeps jacking up prices? With an antenna, there are no prices to jack up, and there never will unless TV as we know it ceases to exist.

“What about static or screwy pictures?” I hear you ask. “Doesn’t getting an antenna mean having to jiggle it around a lot and taking up yoga to get it to work?” Not once we hit the digital transition. Digital signals are generally stronger than analog signals, so they deal with fewer problems. Even barring that, the way digital signals are sent eliminates such problems as static and ghosts. The worst you’ll get is pixelization and occasional frozen images. And these days, many if not most antennas – and if you live far enough out you’d need this – aren’t of the old-fashioned, indoor kind you set on top of the TV, but instead aren’t much different from satellite dishes in the way they’re installed.

In fact, with digital television you may well get a better picture with a free antenna than you would paying for cable or satellite. Cable or satellite companies, as I touched on in my mock PSA, like to compress TV signals so they can cram as many of them in as possible. With an antenna, you get the signal as the station sent it out originally. Moreover, as it stands the extra channels opened up by transmitting in digital are not subject to the FCC’s “must-carry” rules that mandate cable companies to carry every full-power television signal in the area. But they’re only required to carry a single main channel for each station. All those bonus new channels are considered “subchannels” of the station that was able to clear space for them and runs them – and while your cable or satellite company might carry them, they’re not required to, and even if they do carry them they might charge you extra for a “digital” package to get them.

So, with an antenna and digital television you get all your local channels, in HD if you like, as clear or even clearer than you’d get with cable or satellite, plus several more channels you might not get at all with cable or satellite. (Not just subchannels, but – assuming you’re still able to get analog signals – low power stations.) All for free!

Free!

It’s been in place at least since digital television was codified in the late 90s, so how on Earth could you never have heard of this great deal before? Why isn’t this the message of the DTV transition campaign? The answer is, as it often is in these sort of situations: Who has an interest in telling you?

Well, cable and satellite companies sure as hell won’t tell you about it. They’re sure as hell not going to lose your business. The FCC is supposed to be completely impartial, not advocating some thing or another, but in practice they tend to stay on the side of their corporate patrons (or groups complaining about seeing a boob for .02 seconds). Antenna makers might have an interest in getting you to buy their product, but it’s not likely to make them much money, and most of the largest ones tend to be more general electronics companies, especially electronics retailers who also deal with cable or satellite companies in contracts far more lucrative than they make with antennas. (That sentence is purely speculative, but still, I imagine antenna makers might not have a lot of resources to spread the word.)

You might think TV stations and networks might have an interest in losing the competition of cable channels and getting a broader audience for their subchannels, but truth is, they profit off your patronage of cable and satellite as well. Though broadcast television keeps whining about having an unfair disadvantage against cable channels that reap the benefits of cable companies’ subscriber fees, for years TV stations have managed to wring money out of cable and satellite providers by charging them “retransmission consent fees” to show their signals (depending on where you live, you may have experienced losing a station in a retransmission-consent dispute) – even though the must-carry rules say they’re supposed to show them anyway. All that really means, since only the stations can invoke the must-carry rules, is that the cable companies have no real leverage to bring down the price or charge money of their own.

Put up an antenna, give up your subscriber fee, and TV goes back to the pre-retransmission-consent days, where they’re back to advertising as their sole means of getting your money.

So getting you to buy an antenna isn’t in the cable companies’ interest. It’s not in the regulator’s interest. It’s not in the TV stations’ interest.

And quite frankly, I’m not sure it’s even in the consumers’ interest.

On cable, Monday Night Football routinely gets ratings over 10 – meaning over ten percent of all households are watching MNF alone at any given time. It’s rare for even the highest-rated non-MNF cable shows to top a five, but cable channels are able to serve a wide variety of audiences. SpongeBob SquarePants is able to approach four percent of all households with an audience that’s largely children; with over a hundred channels on almost every cable system, and 24 hours in every day and seven days a week, chances are most people with cable watch some number of cable programs each week somewhere on their lineup. I know I don’t know how I’d live without ESPN, C-SPAN, cable news, and on and on and on it goes.

Lose cable or satellite, and you lose all of that. I’d wager that at least a quarter of homes with cable are not willing to give it up without a fight. Yes, you would get a bank of digital subchannels to replace it, but because of the technical limitations involved, you’d only get one, maybe two a station – and they’re probably not in HD, which would only support one additional channel at the most and would still push the limits of the technology. Most markets are lucky to have seven general purpose entertainment stations that can be lined up with the Big Six networks plus an independent – nowhere near enough to replace the vast universe of cable. And take a look at the subchannels that are out there. Here in Seattle, according to Wikipedia, we have the following subchannels on our local broadcast stations: NBC’s weather channel on the NBC station, “RTN” on the CBS station, and another weather channel on the Fox station. And a whole bunch of junk on the PBS, TBN, and ION stations but no one watches the main incarnations of those channels anyway.

In a catch-22, though, it’s possible that if the subchannels had a wider audience they would have programming more worthy of your time and even take something away from cable. But because they don’t have the programming, there’s little reason for you or me to make the switch compared to the value of cable. Certainly I would never consider ditching my cable to watch everything on an antenna only. But if you don’t live so far out in the sticks that you can’t get a signal, you’re willing to sacrifice what you get on cable, and you can put up an appropriately-sized antenna to get what you do want to watch (the larger antennas aren’t terribly appropriate for apartment buildings), then go ahead and stick it to the man. Go for it 1950s-style. You may find you’re really going for it 2050s-style.

I’ll admit it’s probably not the best ad I could have come up with. But it’s close. Suggest improvements in the comments.

Editor’s Note: On the day this post goes up, we are exactly six months away from the transition to digital television in the United States, and the outreach effort has been, to put it simply, a fiasco. Even its successes have been failures because it has ended up spreading some inaccuracies. As such, I have taken it upon myself to create a DTV PSA designed to alleviate the misconceptions and spread as much information, good and bad, as possible, in a short, simple, concise form. I timed myself reading it and came out to about three minutes.

(An image appears of a grandfather clock.)

Voiceover: Remember when you went from having to memorize a bunch of rules to figure out what the time was…

(An image appears of a modern digital alarm clock.)

Voiceover: …to simply being able to read the numbers off the clock?

(An image appears of someone surrounded by paper doing a lot of writing.)

Voiceover: Remember when you went from having to do your finances by hand…

(An image appears of someone working on an Excel spreadsheet.)

Voiceover: …to having a computer doing all the calculations for you?

(An image appears of a newspaper hitting a doorstep.)

Voiceover: Remember when your parents only had a few choices for learning about what was going on in the outside world?

(A screenshot of Wikipedia slides in on top of the last image. Other screenshots from blogs, informational web sites, and the like slide in on top of it.)

Voiceover: Now there are literally dozens of options and more coming every day.

(A generic landscape appears.)

Voiceover: On February 17, 2009, TV will make that move, and it will change forever.

(An image fades in of a television broadcasting tower.)

Voiceover: On that day, all full-power television stations in the United States are required to broadcast exclusively in digital television.

(The image now fades to a television set showing one of those stock images used to show how bright, crisp and clear the image is. As the voiceover continues, it shows a NASCAR race and a mosaic of a wide variety of programming.)

Voiceover: It will bring (usually) better picture quality, better sound, and even entire channels added to the current landscape.

(Fade to a diagram of two broadcast towers, highly lit up, with rings radiating from them. The television set continues to flash images in the lower right.)

Voiceover: And it’s actually a very simple switch. Most TV stations are already broadcasting in digital at full strength alongside their existing analog signals; some have already stopped broadcasting in analog.

(A calendar showing the date February 17 appears. One of the towers stops radiating rings and its lights go out. The television set continues flashing images.)

Voiceover: On February 17, the remaining stations will simply shut off their analog signals and will broadcast exclusively in digital from then on. That’s it. Most viewers probably won’t notice the difference, assuming everything goes as planned, and won’t have to do anything.

(An HDTV appears with a NO symbol over it, fading into a chart showing HD -> DTV, and DTV with two arrows leading to HD and SD.)

Voiceover: You don’t need an HD set. HDTV implies DTV, but DTV does not imply HDTV.

(A new diagram appears. On the left side, the words “CABLE OR SATELLITE” and below it, “DON’T WORRY!” On the right side, on the same line as “CABLE OR SATELLITE”, read the words “ANTENNA TV”.)

Voiceover: If you subscribe to cable or satellite, you won’t need to do anything, even if you don’t have a converter box; you’ll get exactly what you get now and might not even notice that anything changed.

(A TV fades in over the diagram, showing the same mosaic of images shown earlier, just barely slower and not as clear.)

Voiceover: Your cable operator or satellite provider will handle everything for you, although you should keep in mind that your cable operator or satellite provider is not required to bring you all the new channels opened up by digital, and may condense the digital signal so you won’t get the clearest possible picture and sound.

(The diagram fades back into focus. On the “ANTENNA TV” side of the diagram, it is cut in half lengthwise. On the top half fades in an image of an HD set; on the bottom half, an old-fashioned SD set. Below the HD set fade in the words “DON’T WORRY!” The SD set zooms into focus when the voiceover starts “even if it’s still SD…”)

Voiceover: If you get your TV through an antenna, you still don’t need to do anything if your TV is an HDTV, and even if it’s still SD you may not need to do anything.

(Image of someone flipping through a TV manual and finding the SPECIFICATIONS page.)

Voiceover: Check the specifications of your TV; they should be in your TV’s manual or on the box it came in.

(A line from the SPECIFICATIONS page zooms in, with “TV standard” in the left column and “NTSC” or “ATSC” in the right column.)

Voiceover: If it says it uses the “ATSC” standard, you’re all set.

(The letters “NTSC” fade in in big white type as the rest of the screen goes dark.)

Voiceover: If it doesn’t, and it only uses the “NTSC” standard, you won’t need to get a new TV or antenna or anything.

(Image of someone setting a digital converter on top of his TV.)

Voiceover: All you need is a digital converter, which you can get at a discount with a coupon from the federal government.

(Diagram of a broadcasting tower slowly moving away from a television set. As it moves away, the image on the TV becomes pixelated and eventually goes dark. The antenna starts to grow in size, and as it does the image comes back pixelated and then clear.)

Voiceover: Note that although any antenna will work with both digital and analog signals, signals further away from where you live will require a more robust antenna, even if you receive the analog signal fine now.

(A camera, a broadcasting tower next to the camera, and a TV appear. The camera shows a bunch of images, and the number 2 is on top of the tower. The TV is off. The 2 slowly changes to 19. The TV turns on, clearly showing the number 2, and shows the same images as the camera.)

Voiceover: Also, although you won’t notice any changes in the channel numbers on your TV, many stations will be broadcasting from a different channel from their analog signals.

(“14-51” appears in white letters on a mostly black background. With each conjunction, the screen changes, first displaying a UHF-only antenna near “14-51”, then to “2-13” near a VHF-compatible antenna.)

Voiceover: Most of these will be in the UHF band and you can get them using a UHF-only antenna, but some stations will broadcast in VHF.

(Appropriate screenshots from the website appear.)

Voiceover: To find out if you need a more robust antenna and if you can get away with making it UHF-only, log on to DTVAnswers.com (or whatever the site of the organization producing the PSA is). There, you can also find out if there are any low-power stations near you that will not be transitioning to digital.

Wild and Crazy Speculation on the Future of the Olympics on TV in the US

ESPN may be gunning for NBC’s Olympics rights starting in 2014.

The sports blogosphere generally hates ESPN and so what reaction I’ve seen has been negative. But on the plus side, between ABC Sp… er, ESPN on ABC, ESPN1, ESPN2, ESPN Classic, and maybe ABC Family and ESPNU (not to mention ESPN Deportes), they have no lack of platforms to put events on (which I’m not as certain of with CBS or Fox), and they might have more by 2014. And you know they’ll stream lots of events on ESPN360.

If they do get it, though… well, you see what happened when NBC overextended for Olympics rights – it led to the NFL and NBA leaving and killed NBC Sports until last year. If ESPN isn’t careful getting the Olympics would be the peak – and would start a long march downhill that could really help places like Versus. (Hear that, NBA on ESPN/ABC bashers? There might be a pretty good chance you’ll get what you want in 2016!)

NBC Extends Wimbledon Contract

NBC has signed a “long term extention” with the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club for coverage of the Championships, Wimbledon.

More is hopefully forthcoming, as linked article does not provide exact duration.

UPDATE: The “long term deal” is for only four years. ESPN is also close to a deal that could include the Tennis Channel, according to sources.

NBA Re-ups with ABC, ESPN, TNT

This is a little late; blame NBA.com’s tardiness putting up the story, but the NBA will stay on ABC, ESPN, and TNT through 2016, well after just about all other leagues will have to renew their agreements. So far as people watching TV will be able to tell, it will be status quo, unless they happen to watch NBA TV try to become as close to the NFL Network as the NBA is to the NFL.

TNT will show 52 regular season games a year and up to that number of playoff games. ABC will show a minimum of 15 regular-season and the same number of playoff games, including the Finals; the ESPN family will show up to 75 regular season games and 29 playoff games.

More info at the linked article.

15 playoff games mean even with a 7-game Finals, ABC will have to show 8 playoff games, more games than Finals games. This represents a larger playoff commitment on the part of both ABC and ESPN. This and more analysis on Sports Media Watch.

NBC probably had the most successful run of any NBA TV partner, but this deal will give ABC rights for longer than NBC. Many NBA fans on the Internet have been critical of the NBA on ABC – and with gimmicks like bringing in the Pussycat Dolls to do songs for the opener, ABC makes an easy target – but the NBA and others have stated repeatedly that NBC, CBS, and Fox did not make a sufficient offer to compete, and it’s absurd to blame the NBA’s broadcast ratings woes to the presentation of games on ABC. If the games are good, people will turn in in spite of the presentation.

The most pivotal day in "Versus" history?

Versus will televise Big 12 and Pac-10 football games as part of a new agreement with FSN, a rehash of FSN’s prior deal with TBS. I’d be more impressed if FSN hadn’t already let Pac-10 games go to ESPN and made another agreement with ESPN for Big 12 games.

This is great news for Versus and terrible news for fans of those conferences who have longed for them to get off FSN. TBS to Versus is a big step down. On the other hand, while Versus isn’t likely to get The Game That Will Determine The National Championship (between ABC and FSN), this is exactly what Versus needs to do to establish its bona fides as a major sports power before the Big Three contracts come up for renewal again in the mid-2010’s. Versus’ limited distribution and the fact that it counted on major sports to establish its reputation, instead of making sure they had one going in, helped kill their shots at NFL and MLB rights (though Versus’ best shot at the mighty NFL, especially considering their distribution, was probably always the package the NFL relegated to the NFL Network for reasons not concerning the individual drawbacks of any network).

Getting the sort of sports that characterized the early days of ESPN and ESPN2 is also a must. Versus has already gotten a head start on that with NLL and MISL coverage, and dipped its toe into Arena Football coverage last season. Jumping into more mid-major sports, like MLS and the WNBA, would seem to be a logical next step, but MLS and AFL rights are locked up into the next decade, and WNBA (and NBA) rights are pretty much too far into negotiations at this point, with the pens practically already sitting by the contract.

The Big 12 has already re-upped with ABC and FSN, a deal that starts in 2008. Versus might be able to interject itself in SEC negotiations, which are up for renegotiation soon for a new deal starting 2009. Both football and basketball are shown on CBS and ESPN, but ESPN’s coverage of the SEC is rather limited, with lesser games (including the basketball semifinals, a bit of notoriety shared by no other Big Six conference) relegated to regional syndication.

Versus probably overestimated the cache of the NHL today in trying to line up deals for better sports. Now they have to hope that even mid-level Big 12 and Pac-10 games will draw enough eyeballs to stop itself from being a joke for any league over the NHL line. I can’t exactly say the battle of Iowa is a good sign of what’s to come, but at least now they might edge just a little bit higher.