August 11, 2010

Big Ten Network battles continue in PA and OH

We're about three weeks out from Penn State's season opener against Youngstown State. The game will be broadcast, as are many games throughout the Big Ten, on the Big Ten Network. For years, Pennsylvanians could count on watching their Nittany Lions each Saturday, even those early-season blowouts against cupcake opponents. We didn't care, it was still Penn State football, and we were going to watch it all, dammit!

When the Big Ten Network launched three seasons ago, it faced an uphill battle with the cable providers. But slowly since then, nearly every TV set in all nine Big Ten states had access to the BTN. Unfortunately, "nearly every TV set" isn't good enough. Three years in, and two regional cable providers--Armstrong and Blue Ridge--still don't carry the BTN.

Armstrong is the largest cable provider within the eight Big Ten states that does not carry Big Ten Network. Armstrong has more than 170,000 customers in western Pa., as well as 45,000 in suburban Youngstown and 15,000 in Medina, Ohio. More than 17,800 Penn State alumni and fans live in communities served by Armstrong.

Blue Ridge is the second-largest cable provider within the Big Ten states that does not carry the Network. Blue Ridge has more than 175,00 customers in eastern and central Pa. More than 15,100 Penn State alumni and fans live in communities served by Blue Ridge.

You probably remember this map, showing how many counties lack universal access to Penn State football. This map doesn't even include the customers in eastern Ohio who are also left in the dark each football season.

At last week's Big Ten Media Days, the BTN was a hot topic, particularly with the addition of Nebraska into the Big Ten Conference. Parts of that state are already connected to the BTN, while its regional providers are already working out the details for giving the Cornhusker faithful access to Big Red football.

Then there is Pennsylvania and Ohio. Two states that have been around the Big Ten for quite some time longer than Nebraska, yet are still fighting for TV access for their teams.

In a zero-hour move, Penn State Director of Athletics Tim Curley, Ohio State Director of Athletics Gene Smith and Big Ten Network President Mark Silverman will be attending an event in Youngstown, Ohio, for area residents who do not receive the network.
The three will be at the luncheon reception at The MVR, 410 N. Walnut Street in Youngstown, from 11:30 a.m. - 1:00 p.m. on Wednesday, August 18.

They will be available to meet with the media at 11:30 a.m. and then visit with followers of the Nittany Lions, Buckeyes and other schools who are interested in options to be able to receive the Big Ten Network in time for the fall sports season. All Penn State, Ohio State, and Big Ten sports fans are welcome to attend the event.

Representatives from DIRECTV also will be at the event to provide information and answer questions about its new, discounted offer that includes Big Ten Network and its more than 500 televised and streamed events in 2010-11, as well as NFL SUNDAY TICKET.
Silverman was interviewed last week at the Big Ten Media Days, telling viewers that it's come to a point where the blacked-out customers will start moving away from the companies that aren't giving them what they're asking for, what they practically deserve, not to mention a little blurb about China. You know, that bastion of freedom? [snark] Their people even have access to the BTN.

Let's face it. We're not writing this to start a witch hunt against the regional cable providers that haven't come on board with the BTN. We realize that smaller, regional cable providers are in a different situation than the large telecoms.

In fact, Armstrong Cable president Jeff Ross responded to an article written by Kevin McGuire a few months ago, on this very topic:
This appears to be a legitimate concern, and for smaller cable providers without the resources of companies like Comcast and Time Warner, it can be the toughest hurdle to jump in order to bring the Big Ten Network into the homes of cable customers. Ross is aware of the desire for fans to receive the Big Ten Network, but as long as Armstrong feels they are not getting their best possible deal it appears fans will still be left without the network. Ross claims Armstrong has continued to work on reaching an agreement.
Wheeling and dealing this kind of stuff isn't fun for either side. We love the Big Ten Network, but there is only so much that both parties can do for each other.

The point of all this is that it's time everyone living in a Big Ten state should have access to the Big Ten Network. Part of the requirements of the BTN is that each footprint state must have the BTN on a basic or expanded channel, not in any sort of pay-tier, like a sports package for a few bucks extra per month. That does seem a bit steep for the smaller telecoms, particularly when going up against the giants like Comcast and Verizon.

The Big Ten Network is a great service, and its proponents want you, the cable customers to get on these companies' cases about carrying the network. Fair enough, but while you're making a call to Armstrong or Blue Ridge, maybe a quick call to the Big Ten Network should be in order.

No matter what happens, it's time for both sides to realize which party really matters the most here--The Fans.

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