The Cable Industry’s Fight to Define What the Video Revolution Is Really About

An important step in the dissolution of the distinction between linear television and online video content was taken (or at least started) this week when FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler called for the introduction of a new standard to make cable TV content available to devices other than the cable company-provided boxes most people pay handsome monthly rental fees for, allowing people to watch both pay TV content and streaming video on a single box.

Immediately, the cable industry tore into Wheeler’s proposal, forming something called the Future of TV Coalition to be the public front to its opposition. Most of the critiques I’ve seen of their criticisms don’t seem to go much further than just dismissing it as whining about potentially losing their lucrative set-top-box rental fees, but that may be because it comes off as completely unhinged, seemingly attacking a completely different plan than what consumer groups and Wheeler are advocating and making points the proposal has already addressed or that make no sense, a strawman bearing no resemblance to what’s actually on the table. They claim the proposal would allow tech companies to cut up and resell pay TV content as their own, but it makes no sense and there’s no reason to believe that people wouldn’t still pay their cable company to deliver content, only having a choice in what device would deliver that content. They claim the proposal would allow tech companies to muck with channel ordering and numbering in violation of contractural agreements, when it would be trivial to require any interface to leave the channel lineup alone (or at best to leave any reordering to the consumer). They claim the proposal would mandate the installation of an additional box when the proposal specifically advocates a software-based solution, the whole idea of which is to allow the provision of pay-TV content on boxes that already exist (including cable companies’ own boxes) or on no box at all. They claim the proposal would strip out security and privacy protections when the whole point of it is to arrive at some sort of solution to deliver those protections and credentials to independent boxes for them to process just as today’s cable boxes do.

Though the cable industry has publicly supported past and present efforts to open up the set-top box market, and claims to be all for opening up access to a wide variety of devices, they spend a lot more time bashing the FCC’s proposal than suggesting their own alternative, despite claiming not to know exactly what the FCC’s proposal is. Instead, the closest they come to suggesting an alternative is to repeat the word “apps” over and over. The commission’s proposal, they claim, is unnecessary because Tim Cook says “the future of TV is apps” reflecting the “apps revolution” of consumers, programmers, and cable companies embracing the “apps-based model” making “apps” available to millions of devices and apps apps apps apps apps.

If it seems odd that consumer groups, tech companies, and the FCC would be against television delivered through apps, given the entire backdrop under which this whole thing is taking place, that’s because they aren’t; indeed, the proposal specifically names “app developers” as being among those that would have access to the necessary data to effectively and securely deliver pay-TV content. So it’s not clear what the cable industry means by the “app-based approach” that wouldn’t include the very concept they’re contrasting it to. What they seem to be trying to say is that the FCC doesn’t need to do anything at all, because the existing apps available already deliver pay-TV content to the sorts of devices that would benefit under the proposal (not that that would keep them from pushing expensive cable box rentals on people) – though it’s not clear what kind of apps they mean, because they alternately cite both TV Everywhere apps provided by programmers as well as cable companies’ own apps, all in order to support letting the market do its work rather than an actual, concrete proposal. Certainly what they say sounds reasonable enough at first glance, but what sort of “apps-based approach” do they actually advocate, and what exactly is the problem consumer groups and the FCC have with it?

Well, according to the report released by the FCC’s Downloadable Security Committee, cable companies’ proposal would involve delivering content to devices using an app and user interface provided by the cable company, leaving consumer groups concerned about precluding other entities from innovating with their own user interfaces. Of course, forcing people to use a single app to access all linear cable TV content is precisely the opposite of what the “apps revolution” is actually about: decentralizing access to content and allowing content providers to offer their wares to consumers directly, with an experience they can control themselves.

The cable industry seems to believe, or wants the FCC or public to believe, that cable companies’ services themselves are the product, rather than the content offered through those services, even though that content is mostly the same from one cable company to another. This belief is betrayed in their listing of the top “video subscription services”, which lists the streaming services Netflix and Hulu alongside the top cable operators and satellite providers, as though Netflix and Hulu’s primary competition were cable companies themselves, not, as Netflix itself has identified, content providers like HBO. Perhaps cable companies’ greatest fear isn’t losing the billions of dollars in set-top box rental fees, but that in divorcing them of that the FCC might recognize that the real “future of TV” is one dominated and identified by content providers, with cable companies merely providing the backbone through which that content is delivered, and that they might accelerate that future by providing the tools for their wares to be offered through an experience completely divorced from the cable companies’ control. To be sure, content providers might feed this misconception; the contractural concerns such as channel placement cable companies worry about the FCC’s proposal undermining are rooted in a notion of a single lineup of numerical channels defined by the cable company, and perhaps a proposal that makes it irrelevant is one that should be considered and adopted. Content providers would no longer be able to get cable companies to try to force-feed their content by placing it near content that’s actually popular, but even their own TV Everywhere apps (which would seem to have little reason to exist on smart TVs and devices like Roku as it stands) would stand to benefit by being able to access the cable company’s linear feeds directly, strengthening their own brand by making it easier for those apps to become the primary gateway to their content.

The cable industry is right that the “apps revolution” is changing the way we watch TV. The reason they’re opposing the FCC’s proposal so strenuously is that they know it holds the potential to make it all the more successful at it.

Towards a New Broadcast Television Compact

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.

TGTSTG Bonus Content: The Saga of the Longhorn Network

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.

A Last-Ditch Case for Moving the Raiders, Not the Rams or Chargers, to Los Angeles

It’s looking increasingly like Los Angeles’ long national NFL-less nightmare is coming to an end. A week ago, the Chargers, Raiders, and Rams all filed paperwork to move their respective teams to the Los Angeles area. The Los Angeles Times reports momentum is building behind a proposal to have the Chargers and Rams share a stadium in Inglewood backed by Rams owner E. Stan Kroenke. Chargers owner Dean Spanos is sticking by his own proposal for a stadium in Carson shared with the Raiders, but there seems to be a lot more momentum behind the Inglewood project among the league’s other owners.

Which is good! The notion that half the AFC West would be playing in the same stadium always seemed kind of harebrained to me; that works in the NBA where the only division and conference divisions are geographical, but it smacks of absurdity in the NFL, where New York, the Baltimore-Washington corridor, and most two-team states are evenly balanced between AFC and NFC. It would also cause a television nightmare forcing a large number of crossflexes and/or primetime games to allow LA to see both teams (though they are the only two Pacific-time teams in the division, so Denver and Kansas City could play early when hosting one of them). I’m not convinced LA can actually support two teams, but if it is the second team was pretty much always going to be the Rams.

I also understand why the Chargers and not the Raiders are the AFC team with momentum behind a move to LA. All three markets have turned against the publicly-funded stadium charade and have done little to nothing to help any of the teams secure a new stadium in their home market, and don’t seem to have much support even among fans; in all likelihood, at least one of the teams was going to have to go back to a still-unsettled stadium situation. The Chargers have long seemed further apart with San Diego on a new stadium than the Raiders have with Oakland, and the Raiders have long been the black sheep of the league thanks to their rowdy fans; even LA politicians don’t seem to want the Raiders to return to LA.

But it’s at least conceivable that the NFL might still have a future in San Diego or certainly St. Louis. I’m not sure the NFL has a future in Oakland. The Times suggests that any deal that kept the Raiders in Oakland would include streamlining the process for them to move somewhere else, namely San Diego, St. Louis, or the 49ers stadium in Santa Clara. If it were the Chargers forced to stay put, St. Louis would be their only option. Only the Raiders can make the Bay Area a two-team market; for any other team, it’s not worth it. If a team is going to leave a market for another market, only for a team from a third market, already under consideration for moving to the second market, to fill the void in the first market, what was the point? Why not move the third market’s team to the second market to begin with?

Moreover, the Raiders’ problems seem deeper than those of the Chargers or Rams. The Raiders probably need a change of stadium more than any other team; they’re the last team to share their stadium with a baseball team, and that stadium is a literal sewage dump. Qualcomm Stadium and the Edward Jones Dome have their own problems, but by comparison with the Raiders, they smack of just another couple of owners upset that their stadiums don’t allow them to wine and dine the 1% enough. Even beyond the stadium situation, the Raiders seem to be slowly divorcing themselves from the Bay Area. A few years ago, a brawl between fans at a preseason game between the Raiders and 49ers resulted in the termination of the Raiders-49ers preseason series. Without a geographic rivalry preseason game, there’s barely any point to sharing a market.

While Angelenos themselves seem to want the Rams to return more than any other team, the Raiders certainly place second in terms of teams with roots in the area; the Chargers may have been based in LA their first few years in the AFL, but today’s Angelenos have no connection to them despite the best efforts of the Spanos family, while Ice Cube made an entire documentary a few years ago about the degree to which the Raiders became part of the identity of the city during their relatively brief time there. More than the importance of the Raiders to LA’s identity, though, is the importance of LA to the Raiders’ identity. As much as the suit-and-tie executives running the other teams or calling the shots in LA politics may not like the Raiders’ image, it’s one of the few remaining marks of authenticity in an increasingly corporatized league, and the Raiders would not be the Raiders outside Oakland or Los Angeles. The Raiders’ identity is wrapped up in their working-class roots and West Coast, California attitude; moving them to San Diego or St. Louis just because those cities are free would betray that (San Diego is enough of a vacation spot to undermine its other virtues), and moving them to Levi’s Stadium with its wall of luxury boxes also would mark the corporatization of the team, even if it happened against the Davis family’s wishes. (Besides the fact it would likely mean teams called “San Francisco” and “Oakland” would be playing in a stadium located in neither city, an outcome nearly as absurd as two AFC West teams in the same stadium.)

To be clear, I would, all things considered, be fine with the Chargers and Rams moving to LA, certainly compared to an all-AFC move, but I do think it would likely result in one of the teams angling to leave within a decade. But please, NFL owners, don’t let your quest to take advantage of the loyalty of NFL fans to appeal to corporate suits at all costs and desire to still have a “relocation magnet” city (which the deteriorating situations with these teams suggests is becoming a less potent tactic anyway) blind you to the facts on the ground. For once, let common sense reign. If you move two teams to LA, please, at least give serious consideration to restoring the status quo ante 1995.

TGTSTG Bonus Content: How European Soccer Conquered America (With Fox’s Help)

Chapter 3 of the book devotes three sections to soccer, and that was cut down from my initial draft of that part of the book. Because of the number of different important competitions represented, soccer presented several different examples of the fight between different sports outfits to pick up rights, and the most obvious example I found of how smaller, more niche sports and competitions benefitted from the competition. Even if soccer weren’t enjoying a boom in popularity, there would probably be a lot of it available on sports networks in the digital-cable era, especially given how much of it airs at times when no American sports are on. But my initial draft of the chapter would have spent a lot more time on the soccer boom itself, and just how much Fox Sports World/Fox Soccer Channel, and later ESPN’s World Cup coverage, contributed to it.

If I had to guess, I doubt anyone at Fox had any high-minded notions of increasing soccer’s popularity in the United States when they launched Fox Sports World. They just wanted to get their piece of the digital cable boom and supplement the Fox Sports Net group of regional sports networks they were building, and international rights Fox already held was an easy way to build such a network. Besides the rights Fox owned itself, the Prime network that was FSN’s foundation had aired a weekly hour-long highlight show of matches from England’s Premier League until losing the rights to ESPN in 1996, as well as airing the 1995 FA Cup final live, and operated a Spanish-language RSN in the Los Angeles area Fox converted into the (nationwide) Spanish-language version of Fox Sports World. To be sure, Fox ran an ad campaign for the network centered around its soccer coverage during the 1998 World Cup, less than a year into the network’s existence (until ESPN put the kibosh on cable companies and ABC affiliates running ads for a competitor), but Peter Ligouri, head of marketing for the division that included Fox Sports World and FSN, claimed the ads were targeted at people who were already familiar with the world-class leagues Fox Sports World aired. “We are not trying to grow the sport, we are trying to showcase our inventory,” he said. Even within Fox, it must have seemed doubtful anyone would be interested in FSW’s programming other than expatriates looking to keep up with the action back home.

Two years later, though, people at Fox were already starting to change their tune, as a quote from FSW’s then-general manager in the book shows. Fox Sports World’s programs, later Fox Soccer Channel’s programs, may have been shot out of broom closets at public-access budgets, but besides exposing many would-be soccer fans to action never before available in America (or in many cases, outside their home country) before, it served as a place where they could get soccer news and information at a time when the Internet was in its infancy, and became the hub of an entire soccer community, one destined to change the course of American soccer history. Their impact was already being felt in the aftermath of the 2006 World Cup, when they expressed outrage with ESPN’s lead announcer, Dave O’Brien, a baseball announcer with limited soccer experience. As a result, part of John Skipper’s strategy for the 2010 Cup was to build an announce team consisting entirely of British announcers known for their work on the Premier League – mostly people that had appeared on ESPN’s coverage they had already begun sub-licencing from Fox.

Jon Miller, who helped create the NHL’s Winter Classic and became President of Programming for NBC Sports after the Comcast acquisition, tells a story about getting up early on a Saturday morning to play golf, only a year or two after the 2006 World Cup, and seeing the surprising sight of his son, having come in late the previous night, up barely five hours later watching Manchester United play. His other son also got up early to watch Liverpool games, and he saw other neighborhood kids get up at the crack of dawn to watch the Premier League. “I said to myself, ‘There’s got to be something here to this.’ If you don’t learn from your kids you’re making a big mistake,” he reflected several years later. It was his first inkling of just how powerful a property the Premier League could be, and how successful it was already being for Fox Soccer, which would soon become Nielsen-rated and put numbers on the Premier League’s stateside popularity.

MLS, which had attempted to court youth soccer players at its launch, pivoted to embrace a more European model of soccer fandom based on older fans with more of a connection to the team. Seattle Sounders FC was a pioneer of the strategy; it reached out to local bars and restaurants at its launch and capitalized on many older fans’ connection with the team’s prior incarnation in the NASL, and was rewarded by shooting to the top of the league’s attendance charts, pulling in attendance figures higher than most MLS stadiums even held in capacity (many of them “soccer-specific stadiums” built in the preceding decade) and that would put them in the middle of the pack in the Premier League. By 2015, when the new New York City FC club created a new intra-New York rivalry, both sides did their best to try to imitate the European model of soccer fandom – in both its best and worst aspects: in August, fans of NYCFC and the older Red Bulls threw sandwich boards and curses at each other and sang taunts straight out of the English playbook. Thanks in part to increased interest in the league and the increased rights haul from the most recent television deal, MLS has also become a more attractive destination for players from around the world, even some in the prime of their careers, particularly from Latin America.

As for Fox Soccer, the international soccer fanbase it helped build not only proved its undoing, it ended up turning on its creator, the result both of its increased power as the fight for sports on cable heated up and the increased attention soccer was getting from people higher up the chain of command. Towards the end of Fox Soccer’s run, Fox began making a number of moves to target the general American sports market that succeeded only in alienating the hardcore soccer community it had built, the most infamous of them being an attempt to groom Gus Johnson as “the voice of American soccer”. Johnson had become a cult figure with his exuberant calls in the NCAA basketball tournament, but putting him on high-profile Champions League, Premier League, and FA Cup matches with next to no soccer experience only led to him becoming nearly as reviled as O’Brien among soccer fans. The Johnson experiment and other ill-fated moves, and a general perception of falling behind ESPN in production quality, meant many soccer fans weren’t all that broken up to see Fox Soccer go. Fox Soccer, the chief vector for the increasing popularity of the sport in the United States, had ended up collapsing under the weight of the very phenomenon it helped spawn.

TGTSTG Bonus Content: How Comcast Went from Cable Company to Sports Power

As promised, this week I’ll be posting supplementary material consisting of content excised from the book before publication or that I just didn’t have time to write before getting the book out the door, as we prepare for the book’s availability in paperback. This week I’ll try to have one outtake from each chapter from 2 to 8, in order; in coming weeks I hope to have further outtakes ready, some on topics that didn’t fit the structure of the book.

Though his father Ralph may have been the founder of Comcast, Brian Roberts was not groomed to take over the company at an early age – though not for lack of his trying. The elder Roberts attempted to gently steer his son away from the business, but Brian remained persistent and began working for Comcast full-time in 1981, shortly after graduating from his father’s alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Finance. It took a decade for him to prove himself to the point of being named the heir apparent in 1990, when he became president of the company.

Both before and after that point, Roberts found time to pursue his other passion: squash. An All-American at the sport, Roberts helped lead the United States to silver medals at the Maccabiah Games in 1981, 1985, 1997, and 2009, winning the whole thing in 2005. As my book chronicles, sports was a big driver for the cable industry from the beginning, even before the launch of ESPN, with boxing on HBO and Braves games on TBS, and many cable companies had interests in regional sports networks and other sports programming interests. But during the late 90s and early 2000s, as cable companies such as TCI and Cablevision surrendered their RSNs to Fox and as they chafed under ESPN’s post-1998 rate increases, Comcast under Roberts’ leadership set out to build its own sports empire that would make it as much a beneficiary of the latter-day sports boom as a victim.

During the decade from Brian Roberts’ ascension to the president spot in 1990 to when his father transferred him his voting stock in 2000, Comcast was involved in the launches of Speedvision, the Outdoor Life Network, and the Golf Channel, and acquired the Philadelphia Flyers and 76ers in 1996 to launch its own Philadelphia-area RSN along with the Phillies, soon acquiring a second RSN in Home Team Sports in the Washington, DC area. As chronicled in Chapter 6 of the book, after Roberts spearheaded the acquisition of AT&T Broadband, Comcast set out to expand its RSN empire by selling stakes in its RSNs to teams, using the template laid out by YES Network to its advantage. But Comcast had its eyes on a far bigger prize.

In 2004, with Disney CEO Michael Eisner under fire for questionable performance and decision-making, Comcast launched a hostile takeover bid of the company worth $54 billion in stock and assuming nearly $12 billion of Disney’s debt, with ESPN, whose agreement with Comcast was slated to expire the following year, widely figured to be a key motivator of the deal. But the offer popped Disney’s stock price above what Comcast’s offer valued it at, Comcast refused to raise its offer, and less than three months later the offer was withdrawn.

Rebuffed in its attempt to own ESPN, Comcast began to focus on competing with it. Comcast held talks with the NFL about forming a new sports network, possibly in combination with other cable companies, or putting NFL games on OLN, and the NFL hadn’t yet decided to put its Thursday night package on its own network – and Comcast was considered the favorite among non-league bidders – when the NHL fell into Comcast’s lap. Though the casual sports fan may have scoffed at the notion of the NHL moving to the Outdoor Life Network, Comcast had already been talking about transitioning OLN into a general sports network, potentially competing with ESPN, and while there were few paying attention to the sports television business at the time that weren’t in that business, those that were had at least an inkling of Comcast’s plans.

By 2009, though, any dreams of OLN, now Versus, competing with ESPN had become a distant memory. At least publicly, Versus President Jamie Davis disclaimed any notion of trying to compete with ESPN, instead focusing on “super-serving” fans of those sports Versus held the rights to. Though Comcast had never been as bombastic about competing with ESPN as Fox would be, nonetheless Comcast had learned firsthand how difficult it could be, especially after failing to get NFL or (in 2006) MLB rights.

NBC Universal was a prime target for another takeover attempt. It was never particularly on-brand for owner General Electric, with most other broadcast and cable networks owned by companies focused on being media conglomerates, and 2009 seemed like a particularly ripe time for GE to get out of the media business. It was the aftermath of the BCS deal, broadcast advertising had been battered in the Great Recession, and the retransmission consent market had not yet heated up. NBC in particular had become a laughingstock, mired in last place for years and going through the Jay Leno Show fiasco, and the Universal movie studio wasn’t much better. Cable networks, though, backed by the stability of their subscription fee revenue streams, were thriving, with NBC Universal’s outlets like USA, SyFy, and MSNBC gaining in viewership. By most accounts, it was those cable networks, which would give Comcast control over more of the content it would deliver over its pipes, that was Roberts’ main target when he set out to acquire NBC Universal, with the broadcast network being heavily de-emphasized and potentially spun off if regulators put up objections strenuous enough to seeing one of the Big Four broadcast networks owned by over-the-air broadcasting’s nominal competitor.

But for those in the sports field, it was NBC’s broadcast operation and its bucket of sports rights, led by the legendary Dick Ebersol, that seemed to be the most valuable part of the deal. Ebersol’s expertise at producing top-notch productions of big events, especially the Olympics, would raise the quality and prestige of Comcast’s sports operations, and NBC would both be able to share its existing sports rights with Versus and provide much-needed muscle, and an attractive broadcast outlet, to acquire higher-profile rights for the network, while Comcast could integrate its regional sports networks in Chicago, Philadelphia, the Bay Area, and Washington, DC with NBC’s owned-and-operated stations in those markets. In turn, having an all-sports cable outlet and its subscription fees would in turn help NBC acquire rights it might not otherwise be able to score; Ebersol made comments both before and after the deal closed suggesting he had long looked wistfully at ESPN’s subscriber-fee income and welcomed the opportunity to play with a sports network that could take advantage of it. For many, a merger would create the most credible competitor to ESPN yet, at least until Fox’s Fox Sports 1 plans came to light. Just how valuable sports really was to Comcast in making the deal became apparent shortly after the deal closed in early 2011, when Ebersol began making sweeping changes to both sides of the newly-formed NBC Sports Group, including promising a name change for Versus – it would eventually become the NBC Sports Network, leaving no doubt as to the impact the merger had on Comcast’s sports operations – and re-branding NBC’s golf coverage as “Golf Channel on NBC”, much as ABC’s sports operations had become “ESPN on ABC”.

But barely four months after the deal closed, and less than three weeks before the International Olympic Committee was set to accept bids for Ebersol’s beloved Olympics, Ebersol abruptly resigned after he and Comcast were unable to reach terms on a contract extension and following much friction between Ebersol and Comcast, especially over how much they were willing to pay for sports rights, in the interim. Without Ebersol and his passion for the Olympics and relationships with the IOC, it was widely believed Comcast would be less willing to bid as much for an Olympic contract, especially given how much money the last contract was losing, and ESPN and Fox smelled a golden opportunity to steal the Games. CBS and Turner, which had previously met with the IOC but had little interest, even started talking about making a joint bid, though didn’t make the trip to Lausanne, Switzerland. The IOC had told bidders it expected to at least match the $2 billion NBC had paid for 2010 and 2012, but with NBC’s losses and Comcast expected to be more responsible, ESPN and Fox prepared to give the IOC lowball offers.

Three days after Ebersol’s resignation, Roberts and Steve Burke, the man he’d installed at the head of NBC Universal, as well as Mark Lazarus, Ebersol’s replacement, met with the people that had been working on NBC’s presentation to the IOC. The executives sat through the presentation that had been prepared and listened to the employees tell them what the Olympics meant to them and to NBC. By the end of the meeting, the employees were fully reassured of Comcast’s commitment to the Games.

The final presentation included a video of NBC employees talking about their Olympic memories and what the Games meant to them, which had IOC officials tearing up. It had also, apparently, moved Comcast executives. When the sealed bids were opened, ESPN and Fox offered up bids in the $1.4-1.5 billion range for two Olympics, not much higher than Fox’s bid from last time, which had IOC officials wondering whether Fox was even serious about pursuing the property. Comcast, on the other hand, bid nearly $2.4 billion. The IOC also gave networks the option of bidding on four Games, an option ESPN didn’t even take; Fox bid $3.4 billion for that package, but NBC paid a billion more than that in the bid the IOC ended up taking.

Comcast would end up bringing back Ebersol for the 2012 Games in an advisory capacity, and unexpectedly announced a stunning, no-bid 12-year extension of their agreement in 2014, ensuring NBC and Comcast will continue delivering the Games into American households into the 2030s. But other than the Premier League and a brief, two-year spell with MLS, NBC has acquired few other sporting events it didn’t already have the rights to before the merger; ESPN and Fox beginning to tag-team on sports rights made Comcast’s climb even more uphill than it was already, and the advent of Fox Sports 1 meant a more attractive alternative to ESPN for sports leagues. There are still hopes for NBCSN to acquire the NFL’s Thursday Night Football package, but they have become increasingly distant since the NFL’s broadcast-centric negotiations awarded it to CBS in 2014. NBC knows just how hard it is for them to compete with ESPN for sports rights. But at the very least, they’ve ensured that Comcast has some sports muscle of its own to flex with other cable operators.

Predictions for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2016

The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s selections are performed by a panel of 46 leading NFL media members including representatives of all 32 NFL teams, a representative of the Pro Football Writers of America, and 13 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 2010 season will be eligible for induction in 2016.

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, and one contributor (not players or coaches), selected by another nine-member subpanel, for a total of eight. From this list, at least four and no more than eight people will be selected for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

My prediction for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2016 is:

Brett Favre
Marvin Harrison
Orlando Pace
Tony Dungy
Kevin Greene
Eddie DeBartolo
Dick Stanfel
Ken Stabler

Hall of Fame Game: Colts v. Packers

Does ESPN LIKE the “Competition” from Fox and NBC?

Before I left for Seattle for a week and a half, I had reason to start thinking about the possibility of our household becoming a cord-cutting household, because as we were wrapping up the book my Dad mentioned that he had thought about cutting the cord, and maybe that he should cut the cord, but something was keeping him from pulling the trigger. What immediately leapt to my mind (besides the fact that our “TV” is not only SD, but an old-fashioned tube with dials that’s older than me and has decayed enough to be really fuzzy, especially with our cable box letterboxing literally every channel) was the fact he’s a pretty decent-sized sports fan, and an absolute soccer fanatic. (This is one reason Chapter 3 of the book spends three sections on soccer.) His favorite team is Italian, his second favorite is the Seattle Sounders, and near as I can tell his third favorite is Barcelona. So you might think he’d be able to get by with a subscription to Sling TV, which carries beIN Sport for games from Italy and Spain and ESPN3 for any Sounders games that aren’t nationally televised. His second favorite sport is basketball, specifically the NBA, and Sling TV works very well for an NBA fan, since it carries both ESPN and TNT (but not, apparently, NBA TV, despite what I say in the book).

But in order to catch every Sounders game, namely a substantial percentage of the biggest ones (such as playoff games and games against rivals Los Angeles and Portland), he would also need access to MLS’ other English-language TV partner, FS1, which he would also need to catch most of his favorite European teams’ UEFA Champions League games, most of the World Cup, and half the baseball playoffs (which is another sport he follows). Since the Sonics left Seattle and he’s spent more time in LA, he’s become attracted to the Clippers as they’ve actually become good and lost their incompetent, racist owner, and regularly turns the TV on to their non-nationally-televised games on Fox Sports Prime Ticket, another Fox Sports outlet he would need access to. And while he’s not that big a fan of the Premier League, he has taken to watching a good number of their games given their wide availability under NBC’s contract, so he wouldn’t mind getting NBCSN as well.

While none of those channels are on Sling TV, all of them are on PlayStation Vue, the streaming service Sony introduced last year, and Los Angeles is one of PS Vue’s few launch markets (as the presence of Prime Ticket indicates). But a year ago, when Sling TV was announced, I mentioned that it was preserving the cable bundle, not breaking it up, and PS Vue is that much more so – once it adds the Disney networks, as it’s slated to do soon, it will have channels from all nine of the companies I mention in Chapter 7 as controlling most of your cable lineup – so it hardly represents breaking free of the cable bundle or in line with the real spirit of cord-cutting, as Cord-Cutters News recently pointed out. A package of channels containing beIN Sport and Prime Ticket would set him back $59.99 a month, $54.99 a month under a promo offer, assuming those prices don’t go up when the service adds ESPN, and he still wouldn’t be able to catch non-nationally-televised Galaxy or Laker games on Time Warner Cable SportsNet, let alone Dodger games on SportsNet LA. Time Warner Cable, by my calculation, will be charging him about $125 once their rate hikes take effect, while offering the Internet speed he’s currently getting standalone for $45 for the first 12 months; throw in a $10 fee for modem leasing, and under all promotional offers he’d be paying $110, the same price he pays now, to essentially switch television providers and lose access to any channel not programmed by the Big Nine (or the Epix he receives in a promotional deal), before even picking up any other streaming services he might want like Netflix, or any other fees he’d still be paying.

In October, Todd Juenger, an analyst for an investment firm, laid out the exact process for how a standalone ESPN would dismantle the cable bundle. It wouldn’t be because sports fans would dump cable en masse to sign up for ESPN – like my dad, they would want to watch their local team on regional sports networks and other sports on FS1, NBCSN, TNT, and numerous other networks. Rather, it would be because ESPN’s defection would trigger a massive move to similar streaming services by all the other networks in the bundle, making it that much easier for non-sports fans to cut the cord and break free of the cable bundle – without sending $100 a year to ESPN. It’s a delicate balance holding the cable bundle together: ESPN needs everyone who wants to watch The Walking Dead, The O’Reilly Factor, Naked and Afraid, or Adventure Time to take part in some sort of bundle that forces them to pay the ESPN tax, but in order to justify that bundle’s existence, they need sports fans to need the entire bloated cable bundle. Look at it this way: sports fans whose cable companies are members of the NCTC wouldn’t cut the cord if the NCTC and its members followed through on their threat to drop AMC and deprive them of The Walking Dead, but losing the NCTC as a distribution partner would make it much more attractive for AMC to launch some sort of standalone service that would make it a lot easier for Walking Dead fans to stop paying the ESPN tax (especially if they could team up with Viacom, which has been missing from Suddenlink for over a year, as mentioned in the book), while doing the same to Fox or some other outfit with valuable sports might just set off a chain of events that causes the cable bundle to collapse surprisingly rapidly. ESPN is effectively ransoming all the other members of the Big Nine to remain tied at the hip with them, and the more of them that are themselves invested in sports on cable, the better.

A while back, after wondering why ESPN kept helping Fox win sports rights in order to box out NBC when Fox was already looking like a more credible challenger to ESPN’s throne, I seized on a throwaway comment in a post on the Frank the Tank site to write a post of my own suggesting that, while ESPN may not have wanted competition, what they really didn’t want was for that competitor to be associated with one of their distribution partners, making it that much easier for Comcast to drive them a harder bargain on distribution fees, to the point of building FS1 as their own competitor in order to keep NBCSN down. In turn, Dave Warner, proprietor of the What You Pay For Sports website, seized on that post and made it an important piece of his own message, even as I became uncomfortable with building too much of a theory on a one-paragraph comment that may not even have reflected its author’s full thoughts on the issue, or even necessarily was held all that strongly by its original author (especially after NBC’s original Premier League deal, made shortly after my post, re-raised the spectre that Comcast just wasn’t that interested in running down ESPN). My post led Warner to believe that there was no way ESPN would let NBC re-up with the Premier League when that contract came up for renewal last year, that NBC had built the value of the property so much and had picked up enough momentum from it that ESPN would have to bring it to a screeching halt. Obviously, that didn’t happen; in fact, even before that ESPN decided it didn’t want to keep NASCAR any more, which combined with Turner’s own decision to that effect basically placed perhaps the most valuable property NBCSN has yet attained into their lap. Clearly, there’s more to the story of why ESPN would help out Fox so much than just “we need to keep NBC out at all costs”.

Part of the explanation, as suggested in the book, might be that companies are willing to team up to keep their own price down. But perhaps a more accurate explanation might be that ESPN doesn’t want to have a complete monopoly on sports on television – if it were, everyone else could team up to create a service without it (which, ultimately, is why ESPN and Disney signed up for PS Vue, a deal only announced in November). Instead, ESPN is willing to sprinkle just enough sports throughout the rest of the cable bundle to give sports fans a decent enough reason to keep giving money to as much of the Big Nine as possible, without giving up so much to actually allow anyone to challenge them (or raise their fees enough to accelerate cord-cutting, or dilute ESPN’s own value). ESPN is fine with staying out of the regional sports network business and letting Fox and Comcast be the dominant players there, and they’re willing to let Fox and Comcast have enough content to build their own national sports networks without getting anything truly valuable. It’s true they would rather have Fox be stronger than Comcast be strong enough to drive a hard bargain with them, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want Comcast to have anything valuable, just that they’d rather have NBCSN remain a niche sports network (and in some very real senses, the Premier League and NASCAR are still niches) and help Fox get the stuff on the higher end of the value scale that ESPN is willing to give up. After all, as more sports (like, say, the half of the LCS that wasn’t there already) move to cable, regardless of the network that airs it, giving sports fans more of a reason to stay tied into the cable bundle, ESPN benefits more than anyone. As Awful Announcing’s Matt Yoder put it, “In what other industry can you still get 24 times as much money from a customer who chooses your competitor’s product over your own?”

This turns pretty much everything I’ve written about the sports TV wars – including the big book I just put out – upside down. I’ve framed the war as ESPN protecting their hegemony against insurgents, but cord-cutting is the real insurgency, and it may be that ESPN (maybe without even initially realizing it) has actually used Fox and Comcast to protect their hegemony by fortifying the resiliency of the cable bundle. The title of my book, The Game To Show The Games, may have been more accurate than I realized – for ESPN, it’s just another game for them to benefit from, perhaps even more so than college football or the NFL. The cable bundle truly is ESPN’s world, and everyone else is just paying the rent – literally.

In Defense of the New Year’s Eve College Football Playoff Semifinals (sort of)

The results are in, and while most people who weren’t among college football’s dealmakers (or otherwise employed in the sports media industry) expected large declines for the College Football Playoff on New Year’s Eve, blowouts resulted in the declines being bigger than pretty much anyone expected. The Cotton Bowl between Michigan State and Alabama drew 18.552 million viewers, while the Oklahoma-Clemson Orange Bowl drew 15.640 million. After last year’s semifinals topped all four BCS Championship Games on ESPN, both games this year did worse than every game of the NBA Finals and not only did worse than ESPN’s NFL Wild Card game, the Orange Bowl had fewer viewers than the Bengals-Broncos regular season game three days earlier (and would have done worse than more games if ESPN’s MNF slate weren’t so underwhelming this year). In the valuable adults 18-49 demographic, the games drew ratings of 5.5 and 4.7 respectively; last year’s games had ratings of 8.9 and 8.3, resulting in overall declines of about 40% in both measures. Were the Rose Bowl not itself a blowout (and didn’t involve questionably-attractive Iowa), I wouldn’t be surprised if it embarrassed college football’s power brokers by doing better than one or both semifinals. According to Sports Media Watch, the games were the lowest-rated games with championship implications dating all the way back to the 1992 establishment of the Bowl Coalition.

Pretty much everyone that isn’t among college football’s power brokers, from fans to sportswriters and even ESPN itself (which tried and failed to move the semifinals to January 2 this year), thinks holding the semifinals on New Year’s Eve two out of every three years is a monumentally stupid idea. Many people work on New Year’s Eve and can’t catch the mid-afternoon game (or on the West Coast, the late game), and after they get off work they want to go out to a party (where Nielsen’s ratings don’t reach) to watch the countdown, not a college football game, no matter how important. Especially for those who thought the hatred for college football’s kingpins would die down once we finally got a playoff, the hatred being leveled at the New Year’s Eve semis is hard to fathom; Richard Deitsch went so far as to compare it to New Coke. But unlike New Coke, and despite the catastrophic declines, Bill Hancock says there’s no plans to change anything going forward. This seems unfathomable to pretty much everyone outside the offices of the College Football Playoff. The New Year’s Eve semis are universally reviled, seemingly destined to fail, and eminently disastrous. Why would college football’s power brokers want to double down on that?

The glib, short answer – the answer that’s partly the one the power brokers give when pressed on the issue – is that they are trying to establish a “new tradition”, or rather, two new traditions. The one they bring up is the notion of the New Year’s Six as a unit, as a two-day celebration of college football, across New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. That notion is eminently flawed by itself for the same reason, but even with that, you could still have semifinals in the early afternoon and night of New Year’s Day, bracketing the Rose Bowl, as many have suggested. The problem with that is the other tradition college football is trying to establish: the notion of the Sugar Bowl between the SEC and Big 12 champions as a tradition on par with the Rose Bowl. Moving it around the schedule like the other New Year’s Six games (not to mention holding it on New Year’s Eve two out of three years) isn’t exactly conducive to establishing a new tradition.

The long answer begins with how this relates specifically to why the CFP rejected ESPN’s request to move the CFP semifinals to January 2. In July Ilan Ben-Hanan, vice-president of programming and acquisitions for ESPN, told Deitsch they wanted to make the change to take advantage of a “one-year-only opportunity” created by a quirk in the calendar: the fact that January 2 would fall on a Saturday. Had it not been the second year of the playoff and New Year’s Six (and had ESPN made the suggestion earlier, when it would have been easier to move around stadium bookings), the CFP may have very well accepted the offer. But all parties knew that changing viewer habits in order to establish a new tradition on New Year’s Eve would be a tall order, and a task that would only be undermined by holding off on playing playoff games on New Year’s Eve the first two years and depriving New Year’s Eve of New Year’s Six games entirely in the second. In order to firmly establish New Year’s Eve as belonging to college football and as one of college football’s three biggest dates in the minds of most Americans, college football had to make sure it stayed the course and kept putting big college football games, like clockwork, on New Year’s Eve every year, not switch things up and move it to the first and second the second year with the semifinals on the second, confounding expectations.

As Ben-Hanan alludes to, the January 2 “solution” is one very specific to a calendar that has New Year’s Eve on a Thursday. Next year, because 2016 is a leap year, it’s New Year’s Eve that falls on a Saturday, which makes it the superior option to the day after the New Year’s bowls (which tradition and the NFL dictate get bumped to the second when New Year’s Day is a Sunday) for the semifinals to be held. And pretty much any other year, New Year’s Eve is pretty much always the better time to hold the semifinals than January 2. There may be plenty of people working when New Year’s Eve is a weekday, but there are certainly fewer people working and people working fewer hours than on January 2, or any other weekday in the general vicinity of New Year’s that’s not New Year’s Day itself. There’s no reason for the CFP to really reconsider anything until 2019, and with New Year’s Eve 2018 falling on Monday, there may be more people getting that day off than normal as a bridge to New Year’s Day, meaning fully half the CFP’s 12-year contract may pass before they have any reason to really reconsider anything. If anything, I would argue the CFP’s sin was in not considering the calendar when it set the initial rotation; 2017-18 is not a year that should be the Rose and Sugar Bowls’ turn in the semifinal rotation, because if you apply the no-NYD-bowl-on-Sunday rule to New Year’s Eve, then the absolute best-case scenario comes when New Year’s Eve falls on a Sunday, when the New Year’s Eve bowls not only fall on a weekend but on a day where people aren’t going out at the end of the night. And while people watching the games at work or at a party may be a problem with regards to ratings now, that’s changing as we speak; Nielsen hopes to have its new “total audience measurement” integrated with its main ratings in time for next year’s New Year’s Six, and ESPN apparently worked with Nielsen to measure even people watching at bars and parties, though those numbers won’t be available for a few weeks at the moment.

What this really tells me is the tension between the two traditions college football is trying to establish, between college football’s past and its future, and just how committed college football’s power brokers really are to the playoff. When the SEC-Big 12 bowl was announced, I wondered if it would end up undermining the playoff, and in a way it is. While the CFP is finding college football’s existing bowl tradition inconvenient to their plans, the power conferences find themselves more attached to the Rose Bowl tradition than the playoff, doubling down on it by giving the plum New Year’s Day spots to the Rose and Sugar Bowls, making four out of five power conferences invested in that tradition and forcing the CFP to work around it.

The concept of the New Year’s Six was always sort of a harebrained idea to get to that point (unless the idea was to set the playoff up to fail). Not only does it force the semifinals to conflict with New Year’s Eve two out of three years, it actually undermines the Rose and Sugar Bowls those years, because the best teams will play in the most meaningful games, the playoff semifinals, before those two games and interest will fall off a cliff after that until the national championship. The playoff was always going to undermine the bowl system, and the emphasis on conference champions means that at least two of the four teams that would play in the Rose and Sugar Bowls will always be taken away for the sake of the playoff, so committing to those games as the finale of the New Year’s Six was always a bit of a losing proposition. Then there’s the fact that the remaining two New Year’s Six games are played in the early afternoon, hardly a time that screams “marquee game” and forcing the Fiesta Bowl to be played at 11 AM Mountain, and the Citrus and Outback Bowls haven’t cleared out from occupying that time slot on New Year’s Day, forcing whatever NY6 bowl ends up there to face more and better competition than pretty much any other bowl on the entire slate.

Any better solutions, however, would be limited, because you still want to communicate the notion of the New Year’s Six as a unit and, while you’d like to end the New Year’s Six with the semifinals when possible, you can’t move them too far away from the Rose and Sugar Bowls because, besides the Rose Bowl’s tradition, they’re likely to have the best non-semifinal matchups. Stretching the NY6 over at least three days, though, seems desirable, allowing all six bowls to get prime spots no earlier than the late afternoon. Combine that with a more calendar-conscious semifinal rotation and I think there’s a better solution that would work for the College Football Playoff by maximizing the number of times the semifinals are played on Saturday when they aren’t the Rose or Sugar. I mentioned above that the Rose and Sugar Bowls should never be the semifinals when New Year’s Day is a Sunday; let me amend that to say the Rose and Sugar Bowls should always be the semifinals when New Year’s Day is a Wednesday or Saturday, and never be the semifinals when it falls on any other day, unless a leap year causes one of those days (particularly Wednesday) to be skipped. If New Year’s Day is a Friday or Thursday, play the semis the following Saturday (and if Thursday, the other two bowls on the intervening day); if it’s a Sunday or Monday, play the preceding Saturday; if it’s a Tuesday and doesn’t start a leap year, play on New Year’s Eve. Note that, other than the timing of bowls that are neither the Rose, Sugar, or semifinals, this is only inconsistent with the CFP’s “new tradition” if New Year’s Day is a Friday or Thursday.

Had the CFP taken this approach, they might have still had the Rose and Sugar Bowls host the first year to make up for missing a Wednesday year by one year, but then they wouldn’t host again until 2020, and then again in 2022. Through next year this would have been consistent with ESPN getting their way this year (other than the timing of non-Rose/Sugar/Semifinal bowls), and other than when the Rose and Sugar host, would have remained so right up until the last year of the contract if ESPN got their way again in 2020-2021 (somewhat incredibly, a Rose/Sugar year in real life).

But then, neither the power brokers nor ESPN have much reason to change course; the CFP’s contract is set for the next ten years and they make the same money no matter what, so they only really have any reason to change course if the New Year’s Eve semifinals prove actively destructive to the overall popularity of college football, and they certainly didn’t let a bunch of sportswriter whining get to them over the 16-year-long lifespan of the BCS so they certainly won’t do so now. The value of the CFP to ESPN, meanwhile, is mostly in how it juices up its subscriber fees, without which the CFP would almost certainly be on broadcast like it should be, and while people might be a little less attached to cable if they can’t watch the game anyway, it’s the fact that ESPN carries the games that matters to their subscriber fees, with when they’re held a more secondary consideration. If you want college football to bail from their “new tradition” in the next six years, you want cord-cutting to accelerate to the point of making a sizable dent in ESPN’s bottom line and undermining the value of their subscription revenue stream, causing these two things to collide head-on. If the CFP decides they can’t spend the rest of the contract with the playoff stuck on a glorified premium channel, they may try to force ESPN to move the remaining playoff games, if not the entire New Year’s Six, to ABC (or otherwise to offer them for free), and that would mean advertising would have to pull a lot more of the CFP’s weight, giving both ESPN and the CFP a lot more incentive to pull the semifinals off New Year’s Eve (although keeping them there would give ABC a powerhouse lead-in to the already dominant New Year’s Rockin’ Eve).

In a way, the fact the New Year’s Six was even a plausible concept says a lot about how the shift to cable changed the scheduling priorities. The BCS was scheduled for broadcast television, where the only non-primetime spots generally open to sports are on weekends and holidays, and so the Rose Bowl was the only game not placed in a primetime slot. But ESPN has complete control over its schedule without dealing with affiliates and less dependence on advertising revenue, and is more concerned with filling time than with ratings – note that ESPN has long aired afternoon bowls throughout the week between Christmas and New Year’s – and so its priority was to spread out high ratings throughout the entire day while still being able to count on, if not other bowls, college and professional basketball games to attract decent ratings of their own in primetime. The move of the BCS to ESPN was the ultimate manifestation of the greed of college football’s kingpins, and since it kicked in I’ve never watched more of any BCS or New Year’s Six game than necessary to see the graphics, BottomLine treatment, or sample Megacast coverage (which admittedly makes a fairly weak boycott), not even letting a cable box sit on ESPN with the TV off lest it send data implying our household is actually standing for it. For everyone who didn’t follow suit, from Congressmen that didn’t use it as a reason to keep a closer eye on college football’s “amateur” “academic” purposes to fans who took what they were given and dutifully turned on ESPN at the appropriate times, this is what you’ve sown. Feel lucky this sort of thing hasn’t spread throughout sports – yet.

Binge On and Stream TV: Showing Why Net Neutrality Isn’t Enough

In November 2014, advocates of a free and open Internet were starting to see some hope that, in spite of its connections to the cable industry, the FCC would enact the real net neutrality rules they’d been fighting for. Tom Wheeler’s proposed mishmash of the worst elements of both Title II and the previous Section 706 justification for net neutrality rules was DOA but showed the FCC chairman’s willingness to adopt Title II if the movement for it had enough momentum, and President Obama himself had come out in favor of real net neutrality rules, lending the cause a further mark of legitimacy and making it all the more politically difficult for Wheeler to go against it. In spite of the millions of letters Americans had sent the FCC encouraging real net neutrality on a Title II basis, it was the events of that November that marked a real turning point that led to the FCC adopting Title II and enacting strong net neutrality rules early last year.

So where did we find ourselves a year after that fateful November? Well, T-Mobile has announced a new program called “Binge On”, allowing you to watch all the video you want from certain sites without counting against your data cap, which sounds great until you realize it effectively amounts to prioritizing certain sites over others, what net neutrality is supposed to prevent (after the new rules were applied to wireless providers not subject to net neutrality rules before). And Comcast has indicated that its own Stream service, targeted to the mobile devices of broadband-only customers, also won’t count against its data cap in markets where it’s trialing the caps.

T-Mobile says the program is open to anyone without qualifications or any money needing to change hands, but it’s easy to be skeptical that it’ll stay that way, especially since it forces all video to be streamed in SD quality, something YouTube, not part of the program, has complained about, with the only difference, so far as I can tell from T-Mobile’s statements, being that Binge On partners have to compress the video themselves (so it’s not really without qualifications, and that’s significant). If every carrier took this tack, even if none of them charged for it, nascent streaming services would have to spend a lot of effort going through a lot of hoops to make sure they were qualified and signed up for every carrier’s program. As for Stream TV, Comcast says it doesn’t even fall under the domain of the FCC’s net neutrality rules because, though it’s an IP service, it’s delivered over the regular cable system, not through their Internet tubes. Net neutrality advocates point out that such distinctions are meaningless to the end user, meaning Stream TV can crowd out competing services that do count against caps. But it’s easy to come to the conclusion that Comcast and other such providers already offer a video service over a different part of their network that doesn’t count against caps and has been running for decades: it’s called cable television. (Indeed, AT&T’s U-Verse TV service explicitly works the exact same way.)

I told you this sort of thing might happen. Video is such a massive consumer of bandwidth that it was destined to become the new ground-zero for the net neutrality debate no matter what the FCC’s rules ended up being, and Internet providers would inevitably look for ways to take control of the video content being delivered over their networks. Regardless of whether data caps are strictly necessary to manage congestion, or even the degree of competition faced by Internet providers, the basic rules of business make it inevitable that Internet providers would attempt to meter the use of video on their networks – and if, as many predict, all video will one day be delivered over the Internet, the issue is going to become that much more pressing, especially as 4K becomes the norm. T-Mobile and Comcast are trying to portray their offerings as meeting laudable goals – T-Mobile by optimizing video for the size of the screen, Comcast by moving video consumption out of their Internet network – and while it’s telling that Tom Wheeler initially praised these sorts of schemes as “innovative” and “pro-competitive” (though he’s since asked T-Mobile and Comcast for more information about these services), unless net neutrality advocates can come up with a better solution, those phrases may prove closer to the truth than they’d like to admit.

One solution could be some sort of video delivery system open to all and immune to the manipulations of wireless or wired Internet providers, available to any device on any network, that content providers would only have to prepare for once. Similar to Comcast’s Stream TV, it would have to operate in a different band of spectrum than other Internet service. To reduce the bandwidth and spectrum demands of all carriers, live streaming video watched by multiple people at the same time would only need to be sent once, and that one signal could be picked up by any device. Oh wait: we have that already, it’s called broadcast television, and rather than help it fill that role its dominant entrants are desperately clinging to retransmission consent as their only reason to stay in the market at all, while the FCC is actively trying to destroy it with the upcoming incentive auctions that aim to “free up” spectrum that wireless providers supposedly need to provide the same video broadcast television is already delivering more efficiently than they ever could and that its more forward-thinking entrants hope to compete with. If you don’t want programs like Binge On and Stream TV to be the future of video and the Internet, you should be pushing to save broadcast from the forces trying to destroy it.