The broadcast TV incentive auction officially kicked off last week with the deadline for stations to declare their participation in the auction. This triggered a number of pieces about what the auction is, how it works, and what the implications of it are. In that vein, I decided to write my own explainer for anyone wondering what this auction thing is they may have heard about.
Tonight, Villanova and North Carolina will face off for the NCAA Men’s Basketball National Championship – but you won’t see it on CBS. For the first time ever, college basketball will crown its national champion on cable, with Jim Nantz, Bill Raftery, and Grant Hill calling the action on TBS (and slanted “team stream” coverage of each team on TNT and truTV). How did this happen? Why was the NCAA willing and able to take the smaller audience of cable? Well, I gave the short answer in my book, The Game to Show the Games:
By 2010 CBS wanted to get out from under a contract to air the NCAA Tournament that was set to lose it considerable amounts of money each year, to the point of engaging in talks to get ESPN to take it off its hands. Certainly the NCAA was very interested in moving most of the tournament to cable, which not only had the potential to increase the rights fees the NCAA collected but also allowed every game to be shown nationally, without the regionalization CBS had engaged in. CBS ended up retaining the tournament by forming an alliance with Turner to show games on TBS, TNT, and truTV in addition to the CBS broadcast network. Turner had never shown college basketball before and truTV, once known as Court TV, had never shown sports of any kind before, but Turner, which was paying a larger portion of the rights fee, went so far as to start alternating the Final Four with CBS starting in 2016 (later negotiations allowed TBS to show the national semifinals in 2014 and 2015 while the national championship game remained on CBS).
The long answer? You’ll have to get the book for that, and for how television money has completely upended the world of sports over the last decade, especially since the BCS blazed this trail with its 2008 agreement with ESPN, how the race for sports rights has changed the TV industry in turn, and how it might all prove to be built on a house of cards that might already be tumbling down. For this week only, until Friday, April 8th, you can get it for Kindle absolutely FREE, or you can buy the paperback at most online booksellers anytime. By the time you’re done reading, you might wish you hadn’t watched the game at all.
I’ve heard it suggested that “recent high school and college graduates“, or just members of the generation uncreatively and corporately termed “millennials”, absolutely cannot fathom why the cable bundle even exists, yet I’m only 27 going on 28 and I remember when cable was an absolutely huge deal, an almost mandatory step up from relying on an antenna, and remained so right straight through the 90s and into the new millennium. (During my lifetime, my family never relied on an antenna except when the cable was out.) Cable was the gateway to an explosion of new options far beyond the limited experience (and chintzy reception) of broadcast, where all the cool channels like MTV, ESPN, and Nickelodeon were. This is what the cable industry tries to evoke when it claims that the cable bundle is the best value in entertainment and expresses confidence that cord-cutting isn’t really that big a problem in the long term and those people that have cut the cord will inevitably come crawling back. What has changed to make what once was cable’s key selling point – the relative smorgasbord of channels it made available – into its biggest liability?
Last Monday BTIG’s Rich Greenfield, whose doomsaying on the state of the TV industry I’ve written about before, gave a presentation at an FCC panel on the shifting video marketplace, where among other things he presented his reasons for the decline of the TV industry, especially that of the “price/value equation” of the traditional cable bundle. You can see the entire four-and-a-half-hour workshop here; his presentation begins at the 30-minute mark, which the link should take you directly to, but what I want to focus on is that, rather than simply pointing to shifting consumer behavior or the shortfalls of the cable bundle and leaving it at that, he looked at how the perceived value of cable has actually gone down since those heady days of the 90s and what forces, specifically the inaction of both government and players in the industry, led to that point. As such, he touches on some of the themes I talk about in my book and on other posts on this site, but in my view, he doesn’t go far enough to the degree I talk about them, and ends up pointing the finger at some inappropriate culprits as a result.
Greenfield claims that retransmission consent is “the chief culprit that has ruined the price value of the bundle”, evolving from the system envisioned by the 1992 Cable Act, where a single station in a market negotiates with a single cable provider, into one where a station group controlling multiple network affiliations in a market, and potentially cable networks besides, is negotiating not only with a cable provider, but with satellite and telco providers as well – a familiar story the cable industry likes to repeat and that I touch on in the book, but not the whole story. He also targets retrans as the ultimate culprit to the bundling issue, claiming that it’s the power of retrans, specifically the earliest period where companies used retrans as leverage to carry cable networks rather than demanding cash payments, that allows the major media conglomerates to demand that cable companies deliver all their channels in inflexible bundles, before admitting that companies that don’t own broadcast stations engage in the same practice and, implicitly, that ESPN is at least as much a driver of Disney’s bundle as ABC. Greenfield also blames pay-TV companies for negotiating clauses into contracts that hinder programmers’ ability to move to online distribution and that prevent programmers from collecting different amounts of money from different distributors, resulting in a situation where everyone is too invested in the traditional, bloated bundle, and takes steps to ensure that none of the others can do anything to distance themselves from it, keeping everyone tied in to the bundle and in turn keeping consumers ensnared in it – so long as a Netflix doesn’t come along to provide an alternative.
The problem with this narrative is that the problems that have developed in the retransmission consent landscape are a reaction to and symptom of the larger bundling issue, not the other way around, and cannot be looked at in isolation, separate from the larger issue of pay-TV programming fees. It’s true that the introduction of satellite and telco providers have tipped the leverage balance towards broadcasters, but what has motivated them to take advantage of that imbalance, to the point of threatening to abandon broadcast entirely if they didn’t get their way with Aereo, is the much larger imbalance between broadcasters and the subscription fees collected by cable networks, the problem that retransmission consent was intended to fix in the first place. If you look at retransmission consent as merely a subset of the larger cable programming marketplace, many of the “imbalances” tipping the scale towards broadcast stations are really just ways to give broadcasters the same tools as cable channels, or ways to keep broadcasters from losing leverage or potential revenue as a result of offering their wares over the air, and in that view retransmission consent has been working exactly as intended, preventing the broadcast industry from losing all their most valuable content to cable networks that charge high prices and muscle their way into the vast majority of homes.
In particular, Fox explicitly cited the desire to keep from losing sports to cable outlets like ESPN and Turner when it began to make a harder push on the retransmission consent issue in 2009 and 2010, shortly after ESPN took the Bowl Championship Series away from it and moved it to cable. Right now the most expensive cable networks by a mile are ESPN and regional sports networks in some order. Other than those, the next biggest contributors to your high cable bill, at least nominally, include TNT, the Disney Channel, and NFL Network, then Fox News, USA, and FS1, then TBS and ESPN2. On a per-station basis for the major networks, broadcast retransmission fees are probably on the low end of the TNT/Disney/NFLN group, so before you get to retransmission consent’s impact on prices you have to go through all the much more expensive RSNs, plus four national cable networks, three of which have substantial investments in sports that both motivate and fuel those high prices. But broadcast stations are in that same exact category, in that like ESPN, TNT, and regional sports networks, it is the need and desire for sports content that drives broadcast stations to set and keep retransmission fees high and to fight tooth and nail against anything that might break up the cable bundle.
More than anything else, it is sports that is driving the high cost of the cable bundle; between highly-distributed national sports networks, regional sports networks, and the major broadcast networks, probably at least $20 of your over-$100 cable bill is ultimately paying for sports. That’s because everyone vying for sports rights knows that nothing motivates people to sign up for and remain signed up for cable like sports, and absolutely nothing motivates people to sit through commercials like live sports. So more networks come along looking for their own piece of the sports pie, passing that cost along to cable companies, and bidding the cost of sports ever higher and passing that along to cable companies and their customers. Add all of that to the non-sports component of the bundle, and you have a recipe for a cable bundle that once brought consumers unprecedented choice and value now being too highly priced to serve anyone well.
The FCC can’t get a good idea of what undermined the value of the cable bundle from a 12-minute presentation, certainly not without appreciating the factors that led the industry’s actors to behave the way they did; for that, they’ll need to read my book, which will help them appreciate not only the plight of broadcasters but why it’s so important to get this issue right. At the end of the panel, at about the hour-53 mark, Greenfield proclaims that he believes the entire medium of linear TV is dying, that what will end up complementing on-demand services like Netflix will be services that offer “live on-demand”. I still have my doubts that the Internet will ever be able to deliver the Super Bowl to 50 million households, or even that it’ll do that well at delivering a regular-season NFL game to 15 million, especially as higher-quality technologies like 4K become the norm, and especially especially to mobile devices with higher bandwidth and spectrum constraints. Linear TV will not die, but only if it recognizes that it is transitioning into a specialized service, one that efficiently delivers content to the largest audiences, especially live content that, precisely because of its unique ability to attract eyeballs to commercials, is most able to be monetized without need to charge subscription fees. That is what the commission needs to keep an eye on going forward: not merely the transition from a video landscape rooted in linear TV to one based in online streaming, but linear television’s own ability to change its role in response to that, without people being blinded by the present-day depredations of the cable bundle to what that role is and how it’s already filling it, and whether broadcast television will survive to take its place as the area of linear TV where that role is most needed without being undermined by its own actions or those of the commission.
Netflix’s push into original content was largely touched off by a desire to insulate itself from incumbents withholding content from their own potential competitor; by enhancing the value of their service beyond simply redistributing movies and TV shows from other services, they could ensure people would continue subscribing even if the legacy players completely cut them off, and perhaps provide an inducement for new subscribers. It ended up greatly accelerating the transformation of the video landscape – and Netflix had some tricks in its arsenal completely unavailable to the legacy players.
Without being tied to a linear television schedule, Netflix touched off heated debate with its strategy of releasing every episode in each “season” of its shows at once, capitalizing on the “binging” strategy that many of its customers used to catch up on old cable series. That also paid off in benefits for creative freedom, as producers were able to avoid the cheap tricks such as cliffhangers used to keep people coming back to traditional television series. Netflix has also capitalized on its ability to collect data from subscribers to aid in development; it signed off on House of Cards after determining their subscribers included enough fans of Spacey, director David Fincher and political thrillers, including those that ordered the original UK series on which the show was based through its original DVD-by-mail service, as well as enough overlap between those groups, to make it worthwhile, and even targeted its advertising of the series differently to different audiences.
Amazon’s own video service, which it originally treated almost as an afterthought and an add-on to its Prime fast-shipping service but which has begun to emerge as Netflix’s biggest rival, soon followed suit, engaging on its own twist on television’s traditional “pilot season” by posting pilots on its web site for a month or so and using user data and votes to determine what to turn into series. Its focus has largely been on comedies, with its first two original series fitting the mold with Betas and Alpha House, the latter starring John Goodman and Bill Murray. At the 2015 Emmys, its Transparent picked up five nominations on the main show and two wins, including Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, joining The Daily Show as the only non-HBO shows to win multiple awards on the main show, while Netflix won only its second main-show award, Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for Orange is the New Black. Even Hulu, a joint venture of ABC, NBC, and Fox designed as a legal avenue for people to view their content and that of other traditional television networks online, has made strides into original content not originating on a traditional television network at all.
Since Vince McMahon took over the World Wrestling Federation from his father in the 1980s, the WWE has referred to itself as “sports entertainment”, a term that (among other things) reflects its status as a form of entertainment that looks superficially like sport, but isn’t. By the dawn of the 2010s the WWE wanted to get in on the sports cable boom by launching its own network, going so far as to announce a launch in 2012, but as mentioned in Chapter 7 of the book, cable operators are leery of launching new networks when not forced to by media conglomerates. Cable operators were only willing to pay the WWE 20 cents a subscriber for a standard sports network, and even after making it a premium outlet airing most of the company’s monthly pay-per-views that are the bread and butter of its business, the company still found cable operators wouldn’t do business on terms acceptable to them. Stymied by the cable operators at every turn, the WWE took a new route to the launch of its own network, one befitting its pseudosport status but which if anything placed it ahead of the curve compared to what real sports were doing, riding the wave that was changing the landscape of video distribution, and standing poised to change the nature of the business in a way not seen since McMahon took over the company and proceeded to use cable television and pay-per-view to systematically dismantle the network of regional promotions that had dominated professional wrestling to that point.
At the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, WWE finally unveiled its plans for its network, which gave its subscribers access to the vast array of content in its back library, which pretty much included every wrestling show that mattered from the 80s and 90s thanks to the numerous promotions whose footage WWE had purchased over the years, plus documentaries on wrestling history and replays of WWE’s main shows Monday Night Raw and Friday Night SmackDown, both on demand and on a linear network that also contained live pre- and post-shows for Raw and SmackDown, first-run airings for secondary shows Superstars and NXT, and the crown jewel of the network, all the company’s monthly pay-per-views, including its biggest event of the year, WrestleMania. All this would be available for $9.99 a month; to put that in perspective, WrestleMania cost $55 in HD while other PPVs cost $45, meaning the network would pay for itself if you otherwise ordered just three PPVs. Oh, and it would be available entirely through the Internet, either through WWE.com or on streaming devices such as Roku or Apple TV. WWE felt they were uniquely positioned to blaze a trail in this space; its data suggest WWE fans consume five times more content online than average and are twice as likely to own a streaming device, with 60% voicing their willingness to watch a WWE Network on there.
The project got off to a rocky start. Although cable operators would seemingly still make more money by airing WWE’s pay-per-views than not (McMahon called it “found money for them”), DirecTV announced it was dropping all PPVs while Dish Network decided it would decide whether or not to carry each PPV on a case-by-case basis. Needing a million subscriptions to break even, the company seemed to plateau at about two-thirds of that number, which, combined with a new television deal with USA and SyFy for Raw and SmackDown that fell far short of expectations given the media landscape, sent share prices tumbling. In October, the company dropped a requirement for a six-month commitment. But by the dawn of 2015, the network crossed the million-subscriber threshold and seemed poised to stay there even after a controversial finish to the Royal Rumble event caused #CancelWWENetwork to trend on Twitter and after WrestleMania had come and gone.
For outlets that might otherwise attempt to collect subscription money from cable operators, “over-the-top” platforms such as WWE Network are looking like increasingly viable approaches. Upon leaving Fox News in 2011, conservative political commentator Glenn Beck elected to start his own streaming news network anchored by a continuation of his TV show and a simulcast of his radio show, initially called “GBTV” but later renamed TheBlaze. It proved popular enough to earn a slot on Dish Network and other pay-TV providers the following year, while still maintaining 300,000 customers paying $9.99 a month to stream it directly. YouTube introduced a series of sports-oriented channels carrying niche content in 2011. The UFC launched the “Fight Pass” network carrying not only cards not shown on pay-per-view or as part of its contract with Fox, but even cards from other MMA promotions. The NFL launched its own streaming service, NFL Now, in 2014, boasting a high degree of customization based on customers’ favorite teams, delivering relevant news, highlights, archival footage, and other content. Several other entities, including Sports Illustrated and the NHL, came together to launch 120 Sports, delivering fast-paced news, highlights, and commentary in 120 seconds or less. Even major media companies have taken the plunge. In November 2014 CBS launched CBSN, a 24-hour news network with 15 hours of live anchored coverage per weekday, with the ability to start watching at any point in each hour, and additional content from other CBS properties.
Nor does turning to these streaming services have to mean watching on the tiny screen of a smartphone, tablet, or even laptop. A booming industry of devices makes it possible to stream content from all over the Web to the same television set you might otherwise hook up to a cable box, including “smart TVs” that can connect to online sources without going through any sort of intermediary at all, and indeed most streaming services catering to cord-cutters tend to focus more on these devices than on more general-purpose computing devices. Roku has been the longtime leader in this field, making devices since 2008, with Apple and Google joining them with their own platforms and Amazon jumping into the field with Fire TV in 2014. But the most popular such devices might be game consoles from Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo; as they have added online capabilities while streaming boxes incorporate the ability to play games, the line between the two has become decidedly blurred and might be in the process of vanishing entirely. Also in 2014, Google shook up the field with the Chromecast, a small device resembling a USB stick with most of the same functionality of existing streaming boxes plus “casting” technology that allows one to access a video on their phone and “cast” it to the device. Roku and Amazon have already since introduced their own similar streaming sticks.
More than any streaming service, it’s this that most exemplifies the change coming over the living room and the existential threat it poses to cable TV as we know it today. Soon your entire entertainment experience will be controlled by a single device that unites video player, game console, and potentially, even desktop computer, and if the FCC gets its way, it’ll serve as your cable box too – one device that serves as the gateway to the entire universe of visual entertainment, with traditional cable TV at best one source of it, potentially presented to the consumer as many sources. Content providers are already maneuvering to take full advantage of this revolution, but it’s an open question how or whether legacy cable and broadcast programmers will adjust to it, or whether they’ll find themselves swept up in its wake.
Earlier this month the NFL announced a two-year deal with CBS and NBC to split the Thursday Night Football package, pocketing a cool $900 million in the process. CBS will have some games in the early part of the season, with NBC having the later part and NFL Network having some exclusives sprinkled between both parts. The NFL also still wants to sell the TNF package to an over-the-top outlet.
That’s a huge chunk of change, and it’s easy to look at that price and go “what sports rights bubble?” Certainly it looks like CBS and NBC don’t agree with Rich Greenfield that the massive amounts ESPN has paid for sports rights are rooted in assumptions that no longer hold and will end up undermining it, at least within the next two years. As I explain in the book, cord-cutting should actually make sports rights even more valuable, and in fact the forces driving it have arguably been underlying the sports rights boom all along, as one of the few pieces of content guaranteed to keep people watching linear television and keep them signed up for cable. If you look at this deal, you’re thinking it’s a good sign for the Big Ten’s ability to collect a hefty chunk of change from ESPN and Fox (not coincidentally two of the three outfits that didn’t get in on this deal).
That said, I do have to wonder if this is actually that great a deal for CBS and NBC. Analysts at Barclays looked at ad sales vs. rights fees and concluded that CBS lost money on Thursday Night Football last year, though they expect CBS to come out slightly ahead this year with the lower game load; throwing in production costs, Morgan Stanley thinks CBS lost $200 million on the deal and both networks could lose over $100 million a year under the new deal. Of course, ad sales aren’t the only benefit CBS gets from TNF; more NFL games increases the retransmission-consent value of CBS stations, high-rated NFL games increase the lead-in for local news, and CBS gets to use TNF as a platform to promote its other shows. On top of that, under normal circumstances networks do, in fact, make money off ads alone from NFL games. But CBS had to share its Thursday night package with NFL Network, meaning it likely had to share ad revenue with NFLN as well, and might have to share it with whatever OTT partner the NFL gets on board. That also means that, in theory, any retrans benefit from TNF games would be limited if cable operators could still pick them up off NFL Network, though I wouldn’t be surprised if the NFL would require cable operators to pick up CBS to get TNF games on NFL Network.
But selling games to an OTT partner could cripple the amount of money all three networks can get off TNF games from cable operators, even the NFLN-“exclusive” games their deals with cable operators require them to keep. The best-case scenario is that games are sold to Verizon or AT&T under similar terms as Verizon’s existing smartphone deal, where you have to sign up to their existing services to watch the games, meaning subscribers to rival carriers would have to watch on one of the linear networks. The next-best case is if the games are sold to a subscription service, meaning if you aren’t signed up for that service already there’s value in finding a service that carries one of the linear networks or getting an antenna, but by all accounts that’s unlikely. Where there could be a real problem is if the games are sold to an outfit like Yahoo under similar terms as their London game last year, where the stream is free to everyone. Besides making it more likely that Yahoo would want a cut of ad revenue, that means TNF games provide little to no incentive for cable operators to pay more for CBS, NBC, or NFL Network than they otherwise would, with the main incentive to want any of the networks being to avoid seeing Tweets that are as much as a minute ahead of the online stream. It also means some of the suggestions I’ve seen, where the cockamamie scheme where some games air on CBS, some NBC, and some NFL Network leads people to just watch all the games on NFLN, might instead lead people to watch it on the OTT outlet, limiting the amount that any of the networks benefit from the games.
If I’m CBS I’m not sure I agree to this deal without at least securing rights to the games for CBS All Access (and with NBC getting the second half of the season I’d want to find out how much to pay them to get the rights to the season-opening kickoff game, reducing the perception that the balance of Thursday games is tilted towards NBC with that and the Thanksgiving game); if I’m NBC I think long and hard about becoming a party to a scheme that could accelerate the growth of streaming video, potentially at the expense of my parent Comcast’s cable business. I certainly don’t think five games apiece, plus producing four more for NFL Network, with all the games airing on NFLN and an OTT outlet, is worth anything near what CBS and NBC are paying for them.
The NFL is talking about still having an opportunity to “grow the profile” of the Thursday night package, but if the NFL has to come up with this confusing scheme to split the games between two different broadcast networks and sell them to an over-the-top outlet, I think they’re bumping up against the limit of how much value the Thursday night games actually have, and I think this probably puts the nail in the coffin for the notion that the NFL will eventually sell part of the Thursday night package to a cable network like FS1 or NBCSN. The NFL is running up against the inherent limits of the Thursday night timeslot, the questionable quality of the games played on short rest and the need to give every team exactly one game played on short rest, meaning you inevitably have to put the Titans and Jaguars on at some point and you’re limited in how much you can showcase the marquee teams. NBC is salivating over the late-season games they get to show, but the lack of flexible scheduling means they could easily get shafted with dog games involving dog teams; at least early in the season you can put on name teams and people will watch before they know just how good or bad they actually are. (Of course, expect NBC to get the Cowboys the week after Thanksgiving every year, which is guaranteed to pop a rating no matter how much they or their opponents suck.)
Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if Thursday Night Football doesn’t last beyond the end of the current long-term deals in 2022. If selling it to a cable sports network is a dead letter – and Fox, NBC, and ESPN are all likely going to be badly hurting from their hefty investments in their cable sports networks by then – and there isn’t the oversupply of linear TV space there is now, then given the constraints on the product TNF really only makes sense as long as the NFL still has its own cable network, and while you’d think if any outfit could justify its own network, even in a future age of linear television contraction and a la carte, it would be the NFL, the limited live game inventory it would have would make it a tough proposition (something that’s not necessarily the case with college conferences like the Big Ten or SEC), especially given the pros and cons of continuing to sell some of it to another outlet. Depending on how viable an option ESPN is looking, I could see the NFL trying to monetize Monday Night Football in much the way they’ve been doing with Thursday nights, where they can offer more consistent, better matchups and better quality of play than what they can offer the networks and over-the-top outlets that have been bidding on TNF. It’s doubtful they can get the kind of money ESPN pays them for MNF, but then it’s doubtful ESPN itself will be able to pay that much by then.
The realities of trying to turn Thursday Night Football into an institution on par with MNF and SNF are coming home to roost, and while CBS, NBC, and an over-the-top outlet to be named later may be allowing the NFL to keep deluding itself otherwise for now, it may be about to bite all of them in the ass.
After two months being available only for Kindle, my book, The Game to Show the Games, is now available in paperback from Amazon, for those who still prefer having their books on paper. A link to the Amazon page has been added to the book page on this site, and once Barnes and Noble begins offering it on their site I’ll add a link there too; it should also start to become available on various other online book retailers over the next few days. (Don’t bother looking for it in physical bookstores unless it really takes off, though.)
I’ve also added a cover image to the sidebar that will link to the book page, and as soon as I have suitable images I’m going to add links to buy the book to the ad spaces so the bottom one isn’t plugging a webcomic that’s been defunct and inaccessible for years. I also took the opportunity to finally get rid of that outdated Twitter widget hat hasn’t been supported for years, but the replacement had to go onto the right sidebar underneath the blog archive elements because Twitter currently supports only one style of widget and it can’t be narrower than 180 pixels.
Recently ESPN President John Skipper was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal about the numerous challenges facing the company in the age of cord-cutting, as became apparent over the past year. Here’s a telling excerpt from the interview:
WSJ: A lot of your sports rights deals are locked in for years. Given how pay TV is changing, how will that affect your negotiations with the leagues?
Mr. Skipper: It’s too soon to predict. Sports is a growth business. I think it would be foolish to predict that sports rights (prices) will decline. We hold more sports rights than the rest of the sports media combined. All we have to do is use all those rights to create continuing growth in revenue to cover them. To date, we’ve demonstrated that we’ve been able to do so, and I’m highly confident we will continue.
WSJ: Do you have any wiggle room with your league partners to adjust payments if things change and cord-cutting really picks up? Would you want that flexibility?
Mr. Skipper: We don’t have any contingent payment plans. We have rights agreements with defined payments. It’s probably not practical. I wouldn’t particularly entertain it if people came to me and said, “Gee, I’d like to do a deal with you, but if the economy’s worse I’d like to pay you less.”
Of course, there’s a big difference between a sluggish economy and cord-cutting: a sluggish economy is, in theory, a temporary phenomenon. Cord-cutting is a permanent shift in the way we consume our entertainment, and while declaring it a fad that’ll end once my generation has kids might be a good way to try and delude Wall Street into keeping investing into the business, deluding yourself into thinking that to the point of making long-term decisions based on that assumption would seem to be suicide. Indeed, BTIG analyst Rich Greenfield, perhaps the loudest voice on Wall Street casting doubt on ESPN’s long-term viability in the age of cord-cutting, identifies this as the single biggest fatal flaw that could come back to bite ESPN later:
— Rich Greenfield (@RichBTIG) January 20, 2016
Most of these sports, of course, ESPN “overpaid” for under a very different set of assumptions, that of the sports TV wars and the need and desire to keep valuable sports out of the hands of Fox and Comcast (the latter of which Greenfield has acknowledged elsewhere). In retrospect of course, the best approach for ESPN might have been to let Fox and Comcast have valuable sports to shore up the cable bundle, but to some extent they did that, particularly by tag-teaming with Fox on a number of rights. In the case of the NBA deal, Adam Silver quoted ESPN a price that Fox and Comcast were willing to pay, and ESPN could either pay that price, or wait for the exclusive negotiation window to end, at which point either the price would go up, Fox or Comcast would steal the rights away from ESPN, or both. Perhaps in retrospect ESPN should have let Fox or Comcast steal the rights and have them take the financial hit, but that would mean ESPN wouldn’t be able to sell NBA games (its most valuable non-football content) as part of any hypothetical future direct-to-consumer offering, and more to the point, Fox or Comcast would. As much as ESPN might suffer from accelerated cord-cutting, as it stands they’re much more able to monetize the rights they do have than Fox or Comcast, and those two companies might be poised to suffer much more (especially Fox), though their regional sports network interests might help offset that. It’s worth noting that ESPN consciously left a number of potential rights deals on the table, most notably NASCAR, in order to save up for an NBA deal, so it’s not like ESPN had the right to spend like Midas before; after all, even before cord-cutting became a household word, Disney was vigorously fighting a la carte bills in Congress. (And while ESPN and the NBA haven’t launched the OTT service that was part of the deal yet, its very inclusion as part of the deal suggests ESPN has taken at least some steps to shore up its empire against cord-cutting.)
Skipper argues that his company’s deals allow them to increase revenue, both by selling ads against the content and by using it as justification to raise subscriber fees further. So long as the cable bundle continues to exist, that’s true, even in the face of cord-cutting: the more audiences that find indispensable content locked up with ESPN, and thus find ESPN itself indispensable, the more indispensable ESPN is to cable operators, the more indispensable the cable bundle as a whole is to people that might otherwise consider cord-cutting, and the more audiences find value in any offering that has ESPN in it. Of course, I would argue that because of how much non-sports fans have been subsidizing sports networks, sports networks are probably overvalued compared to if they had to stand and fall on their own merits, so if the cable bundle completely broke up ESPN’s revenues would have no choice but to decline – the commonly-quoted $30 a month ESPN would supposedly have to charge to break even on an over-the-top offering is based on how many people would subscribe to ESPN in an a la carte world in the abstract, divorced from price, or at best at the $8 a month price ESPN and ESPN2 charge cable operators now, without regard for how many people wouldn’t be able to afford it at $30 a month. But realistically, the cable bundle isn’t going to break up tomorrow; Dave Warner estimates that, given ESPN’s continued carriage fee hikes, it wouldn’t even start making less money than the prior year until at least another year from now, and those losses wouldn’t become catastrophic until 2019 or 2020 at the earliest. By that point it’ll be time to renegotiate the Major League Baseball and Monday Night Football deals, allowing those deals, at least, to be brought up to date with the new reality, if ESPN’s able and willing to keep them at all, though it’ll be stuck with the NBA and college sports deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year until mid-decade and running the SEC Network into the 2030s.
But even if cord-cutting reaches the point that ESPN finds itself caught between deals signed under a very different environment and a present-day environment that doesn’t allow them to monetize it, there’s one more factor that could allow them to renegotiate many of those deals or may have justified the negotiation of contingency plans that go beyond a “sluggish economy”: sports entities would be just as upset about a contracting ESPN as ESPN is, even if they’d still be collecting the same money.
The College Football Playoff is the example I always bring up on this front. When the BCS first signed its blockbuster deal moving the Rose Bowl and college football’s national championship to cable in 2008, they made a lot of noise about how people wouldn’t be deprived of the games because ESPN was in the vast majority of homes and those homes it wasn’t in tended to fall outside of valuable advertising demographics, were disproportionately less likely to watch the games to begin with, or otherwise wouldn’t represent any big loss for ESPN and the BCS. That’s not a given anymore; my generation lies right at the heart of the cord-cutting movement, and as I alluded to earlier, not every sports fan, even those that find ESPN indispensable, will be able to pay $30 a month for it. I have always said that no major sports competition wants to go the way of boxing, with all the fights anyone would care about on premium cable and pay-per-view, and $30-a-month a la carte ESPN would be even more of a luxury than HBO, indeed would cost twice as much. There’s no way college football would want its national championship hitched to that wagon (assuming they actually want the playoff to succeed); the entire sport’s mindshare would plummet.
So if cord-cutting started accelerating to the point where ESPN is in only a third of households, I would imagine the CFP would want the playoff moved to ABC, and in return ESPN would be able to win lower rights-fee payments. Similarly, the NBA could win more regular-season and playoff games on ABC in exchange for lower rights fees, and the same might go for college conferences although there would be more restrictions there (in football, most of them are probably already on ABC as much as they realistically can be, except for the SEC which has exclusivity with CBS). This process is already starting: witness the move to simulcast this year’s NFL Wild Card playoff game on ABC, as well as the much-hyped move of regular-season NBA games to ABC Saturday Primetime, even if they’re coming out of ABC’s Sunday slate at the moment.
Of course, this depends heavily on broadcasting itself continuing to remain viable, and I’m not sure it should continue to be necessarily free if it does. Still, the fact remains that the cord-cutting revolution is going to put a big hurt on all media companies, and ESPN might be able to weather it better than most, and have a better chance of getting out from under the rights-fee payments Greenfield worries about than the text of the contracts might suggest. A big bellwether is going to be the Big Ten negotiations that should wrap up sometime this year; the most likely outcome seems to be ESPN and Fox sharing the rights, and for ESPN to leave them on the table entirely would effectively be admitting that Greenfield is right and ESPN has paid too much for sports rights overall and is now trying to ratchet them down quickly in the age of cord-cutting, to the point of letting competitors have a property as valuable as the Big Ten, which may be second only to the SEC among college conferences. At the same time, it would be foolish to simply ignore cord-cutting and the prospects for its continuation when valuing the Big Ten rights, so if ESPN and Fox pay in the same vicinity of what they would have paid in the pre-cord cutting era, it might be less a mistake in and of itself, as Greenfield might see it, as a sign that ESPN still believes its rights portfolio will prove to be worth what they’ve paid for it even if cord-cutting accelerates. On the other hand, if they pay substantially less but still leave the Big Ten walking away with a decent chunk of change we’ll get a better sense of the real value of sports rights when they aren’t inflated quite so much by the cable bundle. But if they pay a fraction of what might otherwise have been expected, maybe even behind inflation compared to ESPN’s existing deal and what Fox is paying for the conference’s football championship game? That’s when it’ll be time to panic, both regarding the struggles ahead for ESPN and the house of cards (no pun intended) all of sports has come to be built on.
According to SNL Kagan estimates from last spring (listed here), here are the most expensive channels on cable (not counting broadcast retransmission fees or regional sports networks):
- ESPN ($6.61)
- TNT ($1.65)
- Disney Channel ($1.34)
- NFL Network ($1.31)
- Fox News ($1.12)
- USA Network ($1.00)
- FS1 ($.99)
- TBS ($.85)
- ESPN2 ($.83)
- Nickelodeon ($.73)
The heavy presence of sports channels on the list, topped by ESPN having several times the figure of the next most expensive network, may be the most obvious thing that jumps out at you, but there’s something else remarkable about this list. I mention in the book that the vast majority of channels on your cable lineup are controlled by nine companies, but seven of the ten most expensive networks are controlled by just three companies: Disney, Fox, and Time Warner, who also represent two of the four major broadcast networks and the largest owner of regional sports networks. An eighth, NFL Network, isn’t controlled by any of the Big Nine. The remaining six members of the Big Nine account for just two of the ten most expensive networks, USA and Nickelodeon. Add Comcast to that group of three and you have three major broadcast networks, most of the country’s regional sports networks, and eight of the top nine most expensive national cable networks, not to mention HBO, with Showtime owned by the remaining broadcast network.
Last month I suggested that ESPN actually benefits from having as many companies as possible invested in sports, keeping them tied to the cable bundle and preventing any attempt to defect from it from being much use for sports fans. But only those four companies – Disney, Comcast, Fox, and Time Warner – have any serious investment in sports on cable, with CBS the only other Big Nine member with any stateside presence in sports at all. I talk about the Big Nine, but the reality is there’s a divide within the Big Nine between the Sports Four-and-a-Half – which as it happens, make up the most valuable members of the Big Nine according to the Fortune 500, in rough order of the level of their investment in sports aside from Comcast being propelled by its cable-operator business ahead of the rest – and the remaining members with no presence in sports. What would happen if those four companies – Viacom, Discovery, AMC, and Scripps – decided to defect from the cable bundle themselves, on their own or individually?
Let’s do some back-of-the-napkin math. Let’s start by assuming that the average American sees $50 of their cable bill go towards programming costs. Just getting rid of every network that’s not Nickelodeon on the list above takes out $15.70 of that total. Take out another 87 cents for ESPNU, NBCSN, and Golf Channel (based on numbers here). Take out another $5 for retransmission fees for broadcast stations, and another $3 for regional sports networks. Take out another $2.28 for another seven networks listed here, and around 10-20 cents for each additional network owned by one of these five companies in over 75 million households, so about 14-ish – let’s say that comes out to $2.15 so we get a nice, round number of dollars. That comes out to $29 in savings, over half of that $50 figure. That would mean a service from those four companies could cost as little as $21, about the same as Sling TV, though realistically in order to make up for the consequences it would charge at least $25. On the other hand, that figure also includes networks not owned by any of the Big Nine, as well as networks in under 75 million homes (which is still a substantial majority of homes), and it also undercounts the total for markets with multiple RSNs not counting college conference networks and might undercount the retransmission haul as well (not to mention the price for the remaining networks being taken out), so it’s possible the true figure might come down below $20. Viacom is the only company not already present in Sling TV, so if you take that as a baseline our service might cost as little as $10 just from taking Sling and removing the Disney networks, and if necessary Viacom has both the most expensive single network and a suite performing weak enough small cable operators are increasingly comfortable going without it and shareholders are questioning Sumner Redstone’s mental fitness to run the company, so jettisoning them would probably shave at least $2.40.
Whether $10, $20, or $25, what would that give the consumer? Well, there’d be an eclectic mix of documentary and lifestyle programming from the Discovery and Scripps networks. If you kept Viacom in the mix you’d have kids and family programming from Nickelodeon and Discovery Family, plus popular reality and other shows from MTV, VH1, and Spike, some of which might complement the Discovery/Scripps selection. Viacom would also have a back library of TV shows and it and AMC would have a decent movie selection, though maybe not on-demand, while AMC might also contribute some popular British shows from BBC America. And of course you’d have The Walking Dead and other popular and critically-acclaimed original shows from AMC, plus other original shows from OWN and the Viacom networks including South Park. Other than sports, the main thing you’d be lacking would be news or anything from the last decade that wasn’t originally produced for one of these networks (the main exceptions probably being on Comedy Central), and if you’re looking for anything specific associated with a network owned by one of the Sports Five you’d be out of luck, but as a complement to other services that exist such as Netflix and Hulu it could be a decently valuable collection, especially if you can price it substantially lower than Sling TV’s $20, and/or if Viacom brings enough value to the table to make up for the loss of the Disney and Turner networks.
Perhaps more important than the raw price, however, would be the fact anyone signed up for such a service would not be paying any form of sports tax. Unlike Sling TV, our service would allow anyone without a lick of interest in sports to get valuable cable content previously unavailable outside of a cable bundle without subsidizing a single sports network of any kind. That means even if it’s less popular than a Sling TV, if it gained any kind of traction whatsoever it would be a much bigger existential threat to the cable bundle and ESPN’s business model than anything else that exists so far. For the record, in the piece I linked to in my post a month ago about how a standalone ESPN would break up the cable bundle, the analyst in that piece specifically talks about a service consisting of precisely these four companies plus Turner, priced at $15 a month, suggesting $10 for these four companies alone is quite reasonable.
When talking about the cable-bundle business model, sports writers often note that just as non-sports fans subsidize sports networks, so do sports fans subsidize networks like AMC. Of course, this attempt at equivocation, even if it comes down to a single sentence in an article, seems way overblown; if you believe the total amount being spent on the cable bundle reflects fair market value for whatever each consumer gets out of it, then if some networks are getting more than their open-market value others are getting less, and it seems likely that by and large, sports networks fall into the former category and most non-sports networks the latter. But in this area, the notion that non-sports networks are receiving some value from remaining attached to the cable bundle, and being subsidized by its sports fans, seems to be an important one. It is quite telling that while only two of the Sports Five are associated with Sling TV, three of the non-sports four are part of it. How much do Discovery, AMC, and Scripps continue to value remaining tied at the hip with ESPN, or at least keeping the cable bundle stable? Were they already aligned with Sling TV and either ESPN felt obligated to join them or Dish felt obligated to recruit them? Conversely, if ESPN came first, did they have any say in what other companies would be part of Sling TV? And how long until the calculus changes and these companies decide they have enough to gain to be worth defecting from, and thus potentially destroying, the cable bundle? Right now ESPN and the non-sports four need each other enough to be tied at the hip even into their ventures into OTT, even more than the companies with sports investments, but one day the time will come where ESPN needs them more than they need ESPN – or worse, they come to see their association with ESPN as a liability – and that may well be the day the cable bundle dies, or is at least terminally injured.
A common line of argument used to support policies that hurt broadcasters is that broadcasters received their spectrum for free. Cable companies complaining about how slanted retransmission consent supposedly is towards broadcasters claim the government requires them to carry all broadcast stations on the basic tier – broadcasters, they point out, who receive their spectrum for free. Whenever broadcasters complain about the many, many problems with the incentive auction, they are told they received their spectrum for free and they should count themselves lucky they’re receiving anything for it now. The government itself, in the form of the FCC and Congress, justify imposing regulations on content, such as decency restrictions and the E/I and public interest requirements, as part of the deal broadcasters have: they received their spectrum for free, and this is what they must do in return to serve the public interest.
That deal is the one that was struck all the way back in the Communications Act of 1934, and even back in the Radio Act of 1927 that established the FCC’s predecessor and put television under its purview back when it was still just an experiment. The idea back then was that, since no one could truly “own” the airwaves, the government would grant licences to stations to broadcast over them to serve the public interest, paid for by ads and available for anyone with a receiver to tune in for free. This was in contrast to the model taking shape in most other countries, especially Europe, where the government controlled most broadcasting and ran, or at least supported, the dominant broadcaster(s). America, by contrast, allowed the private sector to control the airwaves for free, so long as they used it to serve the public interest and made it available to everyone for free.
This worked well for a time when broadcasters had a monopoly on video content outside the movie theater, and when there were only three major networks providing programming. Some questioned the quality of the entertainment programming, but broadcasters provided high-quality news and affairs programming, and while the First Amendment meant the government couldn’t outright crack down on criticism of the government – it’s doubtful Walter Cronkite would have been able to criticize America’s involvement in Vietnam if he worked for a government broadcaster – the public-interest obligation and government licences allowed the FCC to crack down on stations that attempted to use their valuable spectrum to disseminate propaganda, which it used on several Southern stations that broadcast an anti-civil-rights message.
It began to break down, though, with the dawn of cable television networks. Since cable networks didn’t use the public airwaves, Congress decided it fell outside the FCC’s purview, meaning they didn’t have to follow any of the restrictions on content applied to broadcast stations. Rather than repeal those restrictions, though, Congress added more of them, especially in response to complaints over the “30-minute toy commercials” that took over Saturday mornings in the 80s, which only hastened the slow demise of Saturday morning children’s television completely as the shows kids actually wanted to watch moved to channels like Nickelodeon. The existence of “narrowcast” channels like Nickelodeon and ESPN themselves were increasingly not possible on broadcast television even as the digital transition expanded the number of channels available; subchannels had to earn their public-interest and E/I keep even if they had no interest in forwarding them or were trying to compete with networks that didn’t have to follow them. The idea, presumably, is to ensure some channels are furthering the public interest, educating and informing the public while serving as a safe haven from the sex and violence on cable, but by forcing every broadcast station to meet that standard, while expecting them to compete for advertising dollars with cable networks not so constrained and requiring them to offer their wares for free, Congress and the FCC are effectively forcing every broadcast station to follow the public-television model to some degree.
Perhaps that might be a fair price to pay for broadcasters’ “free spectrum”… except that as I’ve chronicled time and time again over the past few years, the technology of broadcasting is valuable in its own right as the Internet takes over the distribution of video, as the best, most efficient way to deliver content to a bunch of people trying to watch the same thing at the same time, especially to mobile devices where using over-the-air spectrum is the only way to deliver content, over-the-air spectrum that is inherently more constrained than a wired Internet connection. The FCC is about to auction off broadcast television spectrum to wireless carriers that need it, to the extent they need it at all, to deliver video, and AT&T and Verizon are working on technologies to use their own spectrum to effectively build their own broadcast networks, which will likely deliver much the same content between them but force you to sign up for one of their carriers to receive it. It would seem the public interest today is served by some sort of platform-, device- and carrier-agnostic service to deliver video, especially video people want to watch at the same time, without running up against data caps, but as it stands no one would want to buy a broadcast station for the purpose of such a service – it’d be useless for something like Game of Thrones that would run afoul of the decency standards, and they would need to meet the public-interest and E/I requirements even if they have no interest or ability to do so, and even if such content would have no reason to have a place on a linear television schedule, not to mention that they would need to operate such a service on the back of advertising (or donations) alone, unless they wanted to take retransmission consent, and if they did why are they running a broadcast station and not a cable network?
Clearly, the old broadcast television compact is outdated in an age where broadcasting is expected to compete with platforms not bound by it, and if we want broadcasting to continue to survive and thrive for years to come, we need a new compact. We need a service that serves as a complement to the Internet at large and a means to further our goals for it, a vision of over-the-air broadcasting as a fundamental part of the Internet, not merely an alternative as broadcasting was expected to be for cable. What we need from broadcasters today is to serve as a platform for any content that wishes to minimize the cost, whether to itself or to Internet providers, of reaching a large number of people, a means of ensuring a high-quality stream for all customers regardless of provider or the content producer’s resources while minimizing the demand for spectrum, simultaneously a control on and release valve for the big wireless carriers.
This platform can’t be placed under the control of those big wireless carriers or wired Internet providers, but to the greatest degree possible, should be open to whoever wishes to take advantage of it. The principle of the free market should apply here; neither the government, Internet providers, or a single large corporation or group of corporations should control what content gets to use this platform, but rather it should be decentralized among as diverse a collection of voices as is possible. Because the existence of this platform is valuable in its own right, there is plenty of reason to offer it to those already taking advantage of it for no greater cost than the opportunity cost of not surrendering it to wireless providers and without further strings attached, and doing the same for new entrants if there is enough spectrum available for all of them, but if there is enough demand to warrant auctioning off new channels the government can certainly do so.
The principle of the free market, and of fostering a vital technology within the overall system for the distribution of content, also means that requiring certain kinds of content on every channel, and certainly prohibiting certain kinds of content that might otherwise warrant taking advantage of the platform, makes no sense and at best bears no relevance to the goal or the technology; leave the furtherance of whatever specific public-interest goals interest groups want to the public stations and let the free market reign on the remaining stations. And as much as it pains me to say this, it also means letting go of the notion that broadcast television needs to be made available to consumers for free. If a pay-per-view event or something on a subscription service would still attract a large enough audience to warrant taking advantage of the broadcast platform, it should be able to do so, although the government may want a piece of the resulting fees. I have no doubt that in most cases the free market will reward content targeted at the broadest possible audience with the lowest barriers to entry.
The success of any platform depends on its attractiveness to the most popular content that can take advantage of it, which usually means the largest players in the space. Right now broadcasting is only marginally popular by that standard, even though it is tailor-made for popularity. We need to let go of outdated regulations holding broadcast back in order to create the video distribution system of the 21st century, and that means not being led astray by the 20th century vision of broadcasting that spawned them.
ESPN and Fox had saved the Big 12. Their commitment to pay the Big 12 the same with 10 schools as with 12 schools, coupled with virtually the entire college football world outside the Pac-10 converging to try to prevent conference realignment Armageddon, enabled Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe to offer Texas, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma enough of a financial inducement to stay in their conference and not defect to the Pac-10. Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds effectively said as much, though not in so many words. Though a Longhorns network was “really important” to the school, and a move to the Pac-10 would have precluded that by forcing the school to surrender their rights to the conference for their own network, it wasn’t the “deal-breaker” to back out of the deal. Chris Plonsky, who headed the school’s women’s sports, similarly said that the ability to start a network wasn’t the “linchpin” that kept them in the Big 12, but it was a “very important variable”. Certainly it was a key element allowing the math to work out, and was widely perceived as the bedrock on which the foundation of the entire conference would be built going forward. Unlike other conferences that could plausibly claim to have an all-for-one, one-for-all mentality, the Big 12, it was just made clear, existed only because Texas allowed it to exist, and Texas allowed it to exist because it could collect much more money than the conference’s other schools, with many millions staked on a Longhorn network, an entire network dedicated to one school and potentially beamed directly into the campuses of many of its conference rivals, that would prevent the Big 12 from even considering going down the conference network path their peers were headed down. But Texas, despite having one of the biggest brand names and fan bases in college sports, was about to learn starting their own network would not be easy.
If anyone was as disappointed in the outcome as Larry Scott and the Pac-12, it was probably cable operators and satellite providers across the country. The formation of a handful of superconferences at least would have kept to a minimum the number of networks each of them would have tried to launch. Now, however, Texas, Oklahoma, and even Missouri were each talking about launching their own networks, and it wasn’t clear whether or not SEC or ACC schools would try to follow suit. There seemed to be a sense that launching a network was an automatic ATM guaranteed to let the money flow in. Cable operators wanted to make clear that things were not that easy and that they would take steps to protect their bottom line, and potentially, their customers’ bills. And they intended to make an example out of a Longhorn network.
Perhaps sensing the uphill battle ahead, Texas planned to invest no money in the enterprise and carry no risk if it failed. It would find a partner that could help with distribution and was willing to shoulder all the risk. Fox seemed to be the early leader in the clubhouse; it held most of the rights a new network would need and could conceivably use FSN’s existing deals with cable operators and satellite providers to get the network widely distributed right from the start. Fox also had experience partnering with the Big Ten on the Big Ten Network, something the other major contender, ESPN, had no experience in. But ESPN was able to make a renewed push to score the rights to, and full ownership of, the Longhorn Network. It would have to launch the network from scratch and go through all the bruising battles with cable operators, but as it turned out, if Texas did have to launch the network from scratch, it couldn’t ask for a better partner than ESPN.
The road was very bumpy to start. Even before engaging in high-level negotiations with cable operators, the network had an early misstep when ESPN decided it would be a good idea to air high-school football game, only for other schools to wonder whether that might violate NCAA recruiting rules or otherwise give Texas a recruiting advantage above and beyond that represented by the network itself. That, coupled with ESPN securing the rights to a conference football game, caused some to wonder whether the conference was on the brink of collapse again, and helped push Texas A&M and Missouri to jump ship to the SEC.
Meanwhile, ESPN went to distributors asking for 40 cents a subscriber, expensive for a cable channel but chump change compared to major-conference and regional sports networks (BTN started out charging 70 cents). Nonetheless, as the launch approached the network was far apart in talks with Time Warner Cable, DirecTV, and Comcast, in part because of the uncertainty surrounding high school and conference games, and in DirecTV’s case, because they wanted to wait for conference realignment to settle down (A&M was actively engaged in negotiations with the SEC as the network launched). It did have a deal with Verizon, but lacking a deal with TWC meant most people in Austin and a substantial proportion of people across the state wouldn’t be able to watch Texas’ 2011 home football opener against Rice. With even Verizon’s deal not kicking in until about a week after the network launched, the Longhorn Network opened in just 20,000 households. For all the controversy the network had engendered, almost no one, even within Austin let alone the state of Texas, could see it, and in a prelude to the CSN Houston and SportsNet LA showdowns to come, cable and satellite operators were remaining steadfast; by June, TWC and DirecTV weren’t even talking about carrying the network.
The network added AT&T U-Verse in time for the 2012 season, but the network was starting to look like folly; Oklahoma had gone deep into negotiations with Fox on a branded network, but what eventually emerged was merely a block of programming on Fox’s existing regional sports networks, while football coach Mack Brown, always uncomfortable with the level of access LHN wanted, seemed to imply that the distractions and added intelligence LHN provided may have contributed to Texas’ slow start that season. By 2013, it looked like LHN would enter a third season still without coverage on the largest distributors, casting a shadow over ESPN’s efforts to launch the SEC Network.
But just as the season prepared to begin, ESPN finally reached an agreement for Time Warner Cable to carry the Longhorn network. In March 2014, Disney reached a wide-ranging deal with Dish Network that included carriage for the Longhorn and SEC Networks, with DirecTV doing the same in December. What, exactly, changed to cause such a breakthrough, and whether it was a concession more on ESPN’s part or with distributors, may never be known, but one thing that is clear is that ESPN’s leverage with its panopoly of other networks was key to securing deals, certainly with satellite providers. Would the Longhorn Network have been able to overcome its early struggles to secure deals with distributors with any other partner, or certainly if Texas had opted to go it alone? It’s a question worth asking, and it helps explain why the ACC is still thinking about pursuing a network as a conference rather than individual schools looking into their own networks. Ultimately, the Longhorn Network’s success, as qualified as it is, may have more to do with the power of ESPN’s brand than Texas’.
Note: I’m probably not going to finish this initial series of Bonus Content posts this week; among other things, I still need to help put the finishing touches on the paperback. Hopefully the entire series will be done by the end of next week with whatever other posts I want to put together coming out over the rest of the month.