2 years of the Sports TV wars, and the coming Year of Fox

Year Three of the sports TV wars will be when they start to kick off in earnest with the pending launch of Fox Sports 1, and not only is Fox making a huge push for the launch, they’re not giving up their regional sports network hegemony without a fight. Over the past month and a half, Fox has bought portions of the YES network and SportsTime Ohio, the RSN run by the Cleveland Indians.

It wasn’t that long ago that we were talking about Fox no longer having any presence whatsoever in any market larger than Dallas should Time Warner Cable win the rights to the Dodgers (though TWC SportsNet’s chances are still very much alive at the moment), about the launch of Fox Sports 1 representing the final abandonment of the FSN concept and that Fox would cannibalize FSN’s national programming to fill time on its new national networks. Now Fox has an owned-and-operated presence in the top two media markets, and if they win Dodgers rights they’ll be very hard to kick out of either one.

What might be sustaining FSN’s continued interest in acquiring existing RSNs, including a rumored bid for the MASN network co-owned by the Orioles and Nationals? It may be a clause in Fox’s new baseball contract that only recently came to light: apparently, Fox can fill up its lineup of games on FS1 by cannibalizing them from RSNs it owns – a clause that might be a remnant of the early days of the national FSN experiment when FSN would air a “national” game every Thursday. Owning a piece of YES allows Fox to fill up FS1’s lineup of games with far more Yankees games than, say, Mets games.

This suggests Fox might also be thinking about making a run at NESN and its associated Red Sox rights, and why Dodgers rights will be far more valuable, at least to Fox, than has already been suggested. As much as basketball can move the needle, baseball’s lack of a salary cap and some quirks in its revenue sharing model have made the local sports TV wars especially competitive regarding, and lucrative for, baseball teams, long higher-rated as a whole than basketball games anyway (notwithstanding national interest). If Fox has this added motivation driving them to acquire baseball rights specifically, don’t be surprised to see the values climb into the stratosphere, especially in competitive markets. In particular, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Fox absolutely break the bank on the St. Louis Cardinals, Atlanta Braves, and Detroit Tigers in their next contracts, even without obvious competition; even the Florida teams could rake in the dough if Fox fears Comcast or Bright House coming calling.

Most speculation on national networks beyond Fox Sports 1 has settled on Fuel becoming Fox Sports 2, with Fox Soccer remaining as is, which has never made much sense to me given Fuel’s smaller reach and Fox Soccer’s loss of its best, most consistent programming. But Fox may have in mind transitioning Fox Soccer out of the sports market entirely. The LA Times reported earlier this week that Fox is considering relaunching Fox Soccer into a general entertainment network, effectively an “FX2”. That seems a substantially riskier move than turning it into Fox Sports 2; if your company runs multiple entertainment networks, it’s usually critical to make sure they have their own identity so as not to cannibalize one another (for example, TBS being all about comedy while TNT stresses its dramas), especially when the channel is starting with relatively little distribution – Fox Soccer is in about 50 million homes, better than a lot of startups but not enough to launch a big-time network and vulnerable to cable company defections, especially when many cable operators currently put it on sports tiers. To explicitly market it as a “lesser” channel to FX smacks of borderline suicide, and something no general entertainment channel I know of does.

If Fox is going to do this, I would suggest either marketing it as a comedy network (FX is primarily known for dramas though it does have more than a few comedies), marketing it towards women, or create a kids network powered by the old Fox Kids block that entertained so many kids during the 90s (though the rights to many of those cartoons may be owned by other entities). Fox could also market to niche genres, like with NBC Universal’s Cloo and Chiller channels, or pick up the geek crowd disenchanted with the state of SyFy and G4. An outside-the-box possibility could be to convert Fox Soccer into an international version of the Fox News Channel; Fox Soccer already occasionally airs the general “Sky News” from Britain. Ultimately, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if Fox decided that turning Fox Soccer away from sports risked losing too much existing distribution for too little gain to be viable and the only feasible option would be to convert it, not Fuel, into Fox Sports 2, getting that network off the ground that way. (I continue to maintain that Fuel doesn’t feel like a sports channel in the same way as the others to me; it may be about “extreme” sports beyond its UFC coverage, but, well, those are marginally “sports” at best.)

In any case, if Fox only creates two networks that means the chances are borderline at best that it shuts down Fox College Sports entirely, but recent events have still suggested it should rethink what role FSN takes when acquiring college rights – people in the Bay Area have been scrambling to watch Cal and Stanford basketball games FSN holds the rights to since the area’s Comcast SportsNet networks aren’t showing FSN programming.

I haven’t spoken about conference realignment in a while (partly because the whole thing has just gotten too depressing for me), but Fox is also the reported leader in the clubhouse for the rights to the so-called “Catholic 7”, the non-football-playing members of the Big East who finally figured out that the depleted remnants of the football half of the conference weren’t going to command a contract anywhere near as good as what commissioner Mike Aresco was trying to make them believe, especially with the Big East losing its privileged BCS status. (Once Tulane became a viable Big East member, it became clear that this was essentially Conference USA 2.0, with only UConn being a true “Big East” school – and they, not Louisville, probably should have been the school the ACC called when Maryland left for the Big Ten.) Fox has been reported to be offering something in the neighborhood of $300 million, an astonishing number for a non-football conference and hopefully a wake-up call for all the other actors in conference realignment that football itself is not what powers the money machine, but sports people want to watch.

Fox is a rather odd choice to go after the Catholic 7, but unless its existing Big 12 and Pac-12 contracts have limited at best basketball inventory for FS1 their only other option to truly establish their basketball bona fides is the Big Ten contract in a few years, which admittedly I’d be shocked if they don’t snag. But until purchasing YES Fox had very little RSN presence in the Catholic 7 territory; RSNs in Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Ohio, but Marquette might be the only school in any of those states. YES puts them in St. John’s backyard, and the Catholic 7 might be going after the likes of Butler, Dayton, Xavier, and Saint Louis (and Virginia Commonwealth, which might bring FS South/SportSouth into play as well), so they have that going for them.

But considering how much the Big East and ESPN have meant to each other, and the fact that the Catholic 7, to me, are the true inheritors of the Big East’s legacy regardless of whether they actually win the name (a basketball conference with the likes of Memphis, Temple, Cincinnati, and UConn may be a very good mid-major, but still a mid-major), I cannot believe that ESPN would let them blithely walk away to Fox so easily. I have to imagine ESPN will make a big run for at least a piece of the Catholic 7, probably sublicensing some games to CBS – the first real competition between ESPN and Fox since the World Cup rights came up. (Pre-split, NBC was considered a favorite to snag Big East rights and a major reason Aresco kept hyping how much money the conference would make from the sports TV wars – but at this point, which half they go after depends on whether NBC wants to keep piling up mid-majors in football or establish their basketball bona fides. Considering the Mountain West was literally the only FBS conference at their disposal last season, I would lean towards the latter at this point; the only major football conference they have a shot at for several years at this point is the Big Ten, and that shot is very remote.)

Last year saw Fox establish the foundation for Fox Sports 1 with its baseball and NASCAR contracts, while NBCSN settled into a third-place groove (and potentially started to establish a niche for themselves) by acquiring the Premier League, driving the final nail into Fox Soccer’s coffin. While this year will see the fight for the Catholic 7 and the awarding of the other half of the NASCAR package, and the NBA rights might come up for negotiation as well, for the most part the stage for the sports TV wars will move away from acquiring rights and towards what the contenders, especially Fox, do with them. FS1 is likely coming in August, and that is when the Wars will start in earnest.

Predictions for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2013

The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s selections are performed by a panel of 44 leading NFL media members including representatives of all 32 NFL teams, a representative of the Pro Football Writers of America, and 11 at-large writers.

The panel has selected a list of 15 finalists from the modern era, defined as playing all or part of their careers within the last 25 years. A player must have spent 5 years out of the league before they can be considered for induction into the Hall of Fame. Players that last played in the 2007 season will be eligible for induction in 2013.

During Super Bowl Weekend, the panel will meet and narrow down the list of modern-era finalists down to five. Those five will be considered alongside two senior candidates, selected by a nine-member subpanel of the larger panel last August, for a total of seven. From this list, at least four and no more than seven people will be selected for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

My prediction for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2013 is:

Andre Reed
Jonathan Ogden
Michael Strahan
Aeneas Williams
Larry Allen
Curley Culp
Dave Robinson

Hall of Fame Game: Rams v. Giants

Bruce et al v. Gore and Al Jazeera: Why the sale of Current is undeniably a good thing for any neutral observer

Imagine my surprise when I checked Twitter last night to find that “Al Gore” was trending, considering I happen to follow him and he hadn’t really tweeted all day. Then imagine my surprise to click it and find the headline:

Al-Jazeera in talks to buy Current TV

“Huh”, I think. “That’s interesting, and makes a bit of sense. It’s not too different from when Al Gore bought the old NWI network in the first place – effectively inheriting existing distribution deals. Al Jazeera has made zero inroads at penetrating the American market, while beIN Sport has been more successful, for certain definitions of “successful” (scroll about halfway down), suggesting their reputation might not necessarily be a deal-breaker given the right circumstances. It’d be interesting to see what sort of a splash Current could make with Al Jazeera’s financial and journalistic resources.”

Then I see the actual tweets:

I wonder how @algore is going to spend all his oil money he received from selling Current?

Is it me or does it seems like prominent climate activists (Matt Damon & Al Gore) seem very happy to take money from oil rich Arab nations.

Inconvenient Truth: Environmentalist Al Gore sold out to oil money, did so just in time to take advantage of tax benefits for the very rich

Al Gore is trending because he just made 100 million dollars from the oil he’s been railing against for the last couple decades.

Needless to say, this pretty much mirrors the reaction of the conservative blogosphere (along with accusing Gore of trying to push a deal through before tax hikes kicked in, ignoring the larger liberal justification for high taxes on the upper classes).

Alright, let’s set the record straight here. Oversimplifying Al Jazeera to “oil money” sells them short quite a bit, and accusing Gore of cashing out without regard for his principles seems to overlook the broader picture. First of all, on a basic and obvious level, Al Jazeera first became a dirty word for Americans with their release of Osama bin Laden’s tapes, so they have a history of running afoul of Republicans, making them and Al Gore good bedfellows. But more broadly, it highlights a sort of journalism it’s impossible to imagine today’s American “journalists” ever pulling off. As much as simply hearing the name (or even the “Al” followed by a word that triggers spell check) can cause some Americans to instinctively retch, Al Jazeera’s record really is top-notch; specifically, it’s clear that Al Jazeera isn’t a lapdog for Arab oil sheiks, given their record of reporting on the Arab Spring and other rebellions in the region, suggesting the prospect of a surprisingly smooth transition for Current, as Gore would himself point out. Given the state of American “journalism” these days, perhaps we could use Al Jazeera to show everyone how it’s really done.

It’s true that Al Jazeera is in fact owned by an Arab oil sheikh on behalf of the ruler of Qatar, but that brings us to the next point: as much as the oil-rich nations of the Gulf get rich off of selling us the fuel we need to power our cars, and as much as OPEC tries to make sure we continue to do so, they’re also well aware the oil river won’t run forever and have invested heavily in developing their countries to be economic powers even beyond their oil production, which news-watchers saw hints of in the Twitter-fueled response to the disputed 2008 Iranian election, and later in the more tech-savvy elements of the Arab Spring. In Qatar’s case in particular, said ruler has presided over, besides the launch of Al Jazeera, the institution of women’s suffrage, legalization of labor unions, and the introduction of a written constitution and Christianity; it’s hard to find another Arab nation quite so Westernized, certainly not one that hasn’t had Americans push “regime change” on them. (They’re still too small and hot to host a World Cup, though.) Admittedly, it has long been the single most polluting nation per capita in the world, but it’s easy to see that dropping faster than most other Arab nations.

It’s also true that Al Jazeera will be shuttering Current’s current (heh) format in favor of more of a straight news channel, bolstering the image of Gore abandoning his principles when someone comes calling with a multi-billion-dollar check. But it’s worth noting that since Gore bought NWI, MSNBC has become the liberal news channel Gore originally hoped to build, rendering Current superfluous; Current essentially lucked into taking up Gore’s original vision when MSNBC fired Keith Olbermann, but it was never going to measure up to MSNBC, certainly not after firing Olbermann itself. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gore had eventually sold Current to someone else for less. If anything, while Al Jazeera’s apparent plans to create another clone of its usual operations are noble, they might well betray a lack of understanding of the American news market, where people would rather hear people complain, preach, and bicker about the news than actually report it. At the very least, I’d strongly urge them to avoid the “Al Jazeera” name, which might well still be a poison pill for most Americans, if not for the name itself then certainly for its “foreign” connotations. (There’s a reason BBC News has a very limited American presence; indeed upon learning of the deal, Time Warner Cable couldn’t drop the channel fast enough.)

Discounting such questions on the wisdom and practicality of the matter, this court finds the prospect of a somewhat widely distributed network run by Al Jazeera to be a cause for unbridled hope for those fearful for the state of journalism on American television, assuming Al Jazeera can properly appeal to the American market. Given this, and given the long-term prospects of Current in its current form considering the rest of the marketplace, the court finds that despite unsavory appearances, there is no reason to believe that Gore’s sale of Current was done without regard to his own stated and personal principles, but rather was done out of genuine appreciation of their vision for the channel, and indeed the court suspects Gore would actually prefer their vision but was pessimistic about its practicality when he originally made noise about a liberal news channel. While he cannot be let completely off the hook for effectively selling to the ruler of one of the dirtiest countries in the world, the court has reason to believe that Gore can justifiably claim that it is not a betrayal of his own cause. This court rules in favor of Al Gore and Al Jazeera, with some reservations, including serious lingering ones regarding the timing of the matter vis-a-vis new tax rules.

Webcomic reviews! That’s a completely original idea!

Back in 2009, during my previous webcomic-reviewing life, I discovered Komix! after that site made multiple appearances in the ads for Da Blog. Though my initial main concern was the ability to add RSS feeds for comics that didn’t have RSS feeds at the time, I got the sense that the real core of the site was its interface for browsing comics’ archives and tracking your progress, which I ended up making use of for my Scary Go Round review. On the other hand, it was essentially run by a single person who gave it a weird gimmick of adding exactly one new comic to the service a day. Eventually, several comics (including Order of the Stick) lost the ability to use Komix to browse their archives (which, since Komix’ browser loaded the full content of each page without stripping out or adding ads, I didn’t quite understand), and the site as a whole inevitably fell by the wayside as its proprietor became busy with real life.

When David Morgan-Mar and his friends started mezzacotta, one of the “half-baked” ideas they trotted out on it was Archive Binge, Morgan-Mar’s attempt at creating a Ryan North-esque webcomic tool. The idea was to make it easier to catch up on webcomics with massive archives by allowing people to create their own custom RSS feeds to read them in chunks of up to ten comics a day. Somewhat paradoxically, the entire point of it was not to “binge” on a webcomic’s archives in a short amount of time, but rather to consume the comic in more sane portions spread out over a period of time. Perhaps something like “Archive Diet” or “Archive Tour” would have been more appropriate. Regardless, I got the sense that the project eventually stalled with a somewhat disappointing number of strips supported.

Fast-forward to about a month ago, when I learn from Fleen that Morgan-Mar has handed over control of Archive Binge to some outfit called Comic Rocket that I’m hearing of for the first time. Comic Rocket turns out to be something akin to a better-supported, more-professional version of Komix. It, too, seems to have as its main feature the ability to bookmark your place in any comic and move it as you go along, which (in theory) makes it a great home for Archive Binge, but it also seems to have considerably more support from the webcomic community, more people working on it than just one, and way more comics in its system than Komix has ever had. (It also recently finished a crowdfunding operation to create a mobile app that ended up surprisingly disappointing, only making its $5000 goal fairly late and barely cracking its $7000 stretch goal for Android support; I wonder if it would have gotten more support if it were on Kickstarter rather than the more obscure, Matthew “The Oatmeal” Inman’s success notwithstanding, Indiegogo?)

One of the things that has long held me back as a webcomic reviewer is my desire to hold some sort of archive binge for all but the most continuity-free strips. Even complete gag comics with zero returning characters or continuity still get archive-binged to a limited extent, because it’s not just having a proper appreciation of the events leading up to the present, it’s also about having a large enough sample of work fresh enough in memory to form an opinion of a comic as a whole. And archive binges are time-consuming things; even Gunnerkrigg Court, which struck me by the speediness of its archive binge, damn near monopolized a weekend, and that’s time I don’t actually have. So I can sympathize with Morgan-Mar’s desire to make it easier to catch up on a long-running strip. Hell, I’ve done it; on at least two different strips (Doonesbury and Sluggy Freelance) I’ve stared a thousands-of-comics-long archive in the face and told myself that just by reading two comics each day I’m already doubling the comic’s update rate and so will have to catch up eventually, no matter how long that takes.

So I’m going to try an experiment. I’ve identified four or five comics I’ve been meaning to review and started Archive Binge feeds for all of them (as well as a few other comics I want to catch up on). Once those feeds are all caught up, I’ll move them to my tryout space for reading as it comes out for however long it takes to get an impression of it in that state, at which point it’ll be time to write the review. I hope this will allow me to write reviews significantly faster than the snail’s pace I seem to have always worked on them at without getting too much in the way of other obligations. That said, I’m a little worried about how this will change the reading experience; I’ll be getting a comic in little dribbles at a time, dribbles that will have to compete with several other dribbles for my attention, and the process of archive binging will be stretched out over a substantially longer period of time. I may be moving substantially faster than the comic’s own update pace, but catching up this way may impede my ability to get that sense of a comic as a whole.

The way Archive Binge itself is set up doesn’t help; although it’s tied in with Comic Rocket’s own interface and now supports every single one of its comics (including more than a few newspaper comics), beyond that it probably hasn’t been modified much from its mezzacotta incarnation, not even affecting the bookmark under any circumstances (while there were times I wished I could decline to advance Komix’s bookmark, not having the option to start moving it when I’m on the same page as it is a major pain with Comic Rocket). To me, the most glaring issue is that there seems to be no way to increase the rate of update beyond 10 comics a day, which seems low. It’s nowhere near sufficient for Homestuck, but even beyond that it seems to cause older webcomics’ archives to take a disturbingly long time to get through (expect me to review a lot more low-continuity gag-a-day comics and meme factories) and doesn’t provide that good sense of a webcomic as a whole I’m looking for, which could exacerbate the reading-experience issues I worry about. 20-25 would seem to be a more realistic cap; I originally intended to set the update rate for each strip at whatever would take no more than 15 minutes to get through, but quickly decided to set them all at 10.

Personally, I have to scratch my head at Archive Binge’s very structure, which dumps whatever number of links you set into your RSS reader. Regardless of the comic, they’re all links, so you have to click on them to bring them up, but you’re not going to be clicking on each link to bring up each comic; you’re going to click on the first link and then you’re going to want to use whatever interface that page presents to move to the others. Naturally, most RSS readers sort entries in reverse chronological order by default, which means the link you’re presented is the opposite of the one you want, and while Google Reader (for example) allows you to sort each feed oldest first, a) setting it for a folder’s full view doesn’t set it for the child feeds, despite the reverse appearing to be true, and b) it only allows you to set whether or not to show read items on a global basis, despite this seemingly being a prerequisite for the oldest-first view to be of any use at all (aside from, well, archive-binging) and thus defeating the point of making the latter something that can be set feed-by-feed (a lingering general issue I have with Reader).

(To be fair, the issues with Archive Binge’s implementation are multiplied by a) two false starts on getting started with this experiment causing unread entries to pile up in Reader and, more importantly, b) other things about Reader that interfere with Archive Binge’s apparent intended workings, namely, the fact that all entries are marked as read automatically as you scroll down, with entries taking a ton of space in a small window. If I were working in Internet Explorer’s RSS reader, all entries would be marked as read as soon as I left the page, and the sort order would, ideally, be completely irrelevant.)

If I were designing it, I would tie it in much more closely with the other functionality of the site, and indeed make it something that was less of an RSS feed and more something that applied to your Comic Rocket account directly, essentially providing a direct reminder (or something) to stop once you reached the end of your allotted pages for the day, and tracking pages still to be read for the day as a subset of the entire unread portion of the archive.

But then, I’m not sure Comic Rocket understands what the point of bookmarks are when it comes to webcomics, because they seem to be trying to give their site a “social” dimension, allowing you to “share” what comics you’re reading (and not allowing you to choose which ones to share except indirectly by content rating), despite the fact that the bookmark function (which is how “reading” is defined) is primarily useful for catching up on webcomics, not reading them as they come out, or in other words, when you’re trying out a new webcomic as opposed to already knowing you like it. As it stands, Comic Rocket is of limited usefulness for tracking comics you’re already reading, especially if you have an RSS reader (which, you know, you kinda need to use the whole Archive Binge thing); if anything, without Archive Binge being more integrated into the main Comic Rocket interface, trying to use it to read comics as they come out just gets annoying because it gets in the way of the comics you’re trying to catch up on.

As such, I’m not sure I know what Comic Rocket is actually trying to do, and I’m not sure they know either. I think they have potential as a “comics page” to keep up with your favorite webcomics as well as those comics you’re trying to catch up on (without losing the aspect of linking to the original site as opposed to simply stealing images from it), but right now they seem to be trying to serve several masters at once and serving none of them well. It is in “beta”, as meaningless as that can seem on the Internet, but there are definitely enough signs of unfinished business, especially where Archive Binge is concerned (besides the above, clicking to set up a new Archive Binge feed doesn’t take you directly to actually set it up; you have to click again to “edit” your new feed to do so, which seems to violate User Interface Design 101) but also in other areas (the site and Archive Binge in particular is damn near useless when it comes to Girls with Slingshots, where its crawler picks up old, outdated news posts along with actual comics, which probably afflicts other comics as well), that maybe it can improve over time.

Regardless, I’m going to give Comic Rocket and Archive Binge a go, and I’m going to press on with this experiment for the time being, so look forward to more webcomic reviews sometime in April; I’ve added a tentative schedule to the Webcomic Review Index that I reserve the right to change at any time (and incidentally, with ArtPatient not updating in ages, I’m running low on ideas for future webcomic blog reviews; any other good webcomic blogs you know of, preferably not podcasts or behind a paywall?). But I do hope the proprietors of Comic Rocket try to figure out why some webcomics had Komix access shut down and avoid those same mistakes; fortunately, their robust system of bookmarklets, partly designed as a way to avoid using the interface, seems like a potentially viable backup plan if they can continue to collect archive links (not to mention being the only competent way to read comics like Girls with Slingshots).