More on Charter/Big Ten Network deal

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Posted by on August 28, 2008 at 17:35:12:

In Reply to: Charter makes deal with Big Ten Network posted by on August 27, 2008 at 07:36:24:

BTN now live on Charter cable

The Big Ten Network is now up and running for Charter cable subscribers, meaning those subscribers will be able to watch Saturday's University of Wisconsin football opener.

Charter spokesperson Bob Pinter said BTN will be found on Channel 73 for Expanded Basic subscribers, and on channel 795 for HD subscribers, although the UW-Akron game will not be in HD. BTN will telecast the UW-Akron game at 11 a.m. Saturday at Camp Randall and the Badgers' second game against Marshall on Sept. 6 at 11 a.m.

Charter had to get the special receivers that enable it to pick up BTN signals, and then its engineers needed to install those receivers at the company's "head-end" equipment sites, of which there are 15 to 20 in just its Wisconsin territory, Charter spokesperson John Miller said in an interview Wednesday morning.

Charter engineers then had to get the receivers up and running and test them to make sure they were working.

"It's a challenge for our engineering staff," Miller said. "It's a fire drill of receiving, installing and having them ready. But I have to tell you our engineering staff is the best group of guys I've dealt with in my 30 years in this industry, and they will move heaven and earth if we get that equipment in time."

The price Charter will pay for BTN is not being disclosed, Miller said.

He added that Charter customers will see "no immediate price adjustment" as a result of the deal with BTN, "but it should be understood that the cost of the service will be factored into the entire cost of expanded basic along with the increased costs of other programming we've been seeing. At some point there will be a price adjustment, but there is nothing immediately specific to Big Ten Network."

Charter last year announced its annual local price changes on Nov. 1 to take effect on Dec. 1. Its most popular digital cable package rose from from $54.99 to $59.99 per month, while expanded basic stayed at $49.99 per month, up from $31.02, when Charter took over here in 2000. The prices do not include taxes and fees.

Barry Orton, a UW-Madison professor of telecommunications who follows cable issues closely, said in an interview Wednesday, "The one thing I can predict with absolute certainty is that cable prices will go up and the Big Ten Network is a factor in that."

Charter also will have BTN's video on demand package, Miller said.

One thing Charter will not have this season is BTN's "overflow" channels. Those channels, which typically are placed on digital service, are used when the network is telecasting multiple games at the same time.

Local markets typically get their primary game on the primary BTN channel and the other games on the overflow channels. For example, Wisconsin would get the UW-Akron game at 11 a.m. Saturday while overflow channels would get games such as Ohio State-Youngstown State also airing on BTN at 11 a.m. Saturday.

Miller said overflow channels only come into play during the crowded schedule of nonconference football games, and because home markets get their home teams, fans here won't miss any Badgers games because of not having overflow channels.

"We decided to prioritize getting (BTN) up and running on expanded basic and high def," Miller said.

After the 2008-09 college basketball season, Charter will re-evaluate the best place to position BTN, Miller said.

Miller said any factors that would determine Charter's potential movement of BTN to, for example, digital cable still need to be worked out in the final agreement; the deal Charter and BTN announced Wednesday morning is just an "agreement in principle," according to a news release.

"We're not thinking that far down the road," Miller said of Charter's potential plans for BTN. "It could stay where it is."

Comcast, the nation's largest cable company, can move BTN to a digital tier in some of its markets after the end of the 2008-09 college basketball season under a complex formula that ensures it is accessible to a certain number of homes. Comcast has a significantly higher percentage of subscribers with digital service than Charter.

BTN, which now reportedly has deals with all the major providers in the eight Big Ten states (one is unconfirmed), is not commenting on the details of the Charter deal, Elizabeth Conlisk, BTN vice president of communications, said in an interview Wednesday morning.

"We're happy," Conlisk said. "I think there was a commitment on all sides to get a deal done. Now we want to focus on working hard to make sure everyone has the games this weekend."

The pressure of the approaching season helped spur the deal between Charter and BTN, Miller said.

"Back in May or June there wasn't the urgency on anyone's part," he said. "We received no calls over the summer regarding it."

Orton agreed, saying Charter was under particular pressure with AT&T planning to launch its cable-like U-verse TV service in the Madison market before the end of the year. U-verse has both BTN and the NFL Network.

"It would be suicidal for (Charter) to go without Big Ten Network this season with U-verse gearing up here," Orton said. "If they missed this season, the last of the holdouts would go. And with Comcast and Time Warner making deals, Charter doesn't have the status to stand alone. If they hadn't made a deal it would be as surprising as if Akron won Saturday."

Charter always wanted to carry BTN, which launched last Aug. 30, but issues of cost and placement put BTN and the major cable companies at a stalemate last season, Miller said.

BTN has insisted on being carried on a basic level of service in the Big Ten states -- something cable companies long resisted -- but it has agreed to be on digital sports tiers outside the Big Ten states. Charter also has markets in Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Illinois, as well as other states outside the Big Ten territory.

While BTN ultimately got a basic level of service for at least this season in its agreements with the cable companies, it reportedly gave on price, and it could see itself move off basic levels with some providers in Big Ten states next season.

The network has asked for $1.10 per subscriber, a price it got in some deals with small cable companies.

Comcast reportedly is paying about 70 cents per subscriber. Time Warner is paying 75 cents per subscriber, Pali Research analyst Rich Greenfield reported Tuesday.

Miller said Charter customer reaction was about balanced on the situation, with some wanting BTN at any cost but others demanding that the company hold its ground.

"We're delighted that an agreement was reached that in our opinion has the best interests of all our customers at heart," Miller said.

Miller said he didn't believe either side "won" the negotiations.

"This is not a simple agreement," he said. "It could possibly involve other services that we carry from Fox. That's not an issue we can comment on."

Orton said contract details like that make it impossible to say exactly what a company truly is paying for BTN.

The real winners, Miller said, are Badger fans.

"Now I can go to Badger games and get patted on the back," he quipped.

Five Wisconsin football games aired on BTN last season, including its huge matchup with Ohio State. Numerous UW basketball games also were on BTN.

That led to plenty of anger by Charter subscribers at all sides: BTN, Charter, the UW, the Big Ten Conference and Fox. BTN is owned 51 percent by the conference's 11 member schools and 49 percent by Fox National Cable Sports Networks.

Charter's lack of BTN and NFL Network also likely was a prime factor in its loss of a couple points of market share locally to satellite providers DirecTV and DISH Network, both of which carry BTN and NFL Network. Both channels also are carried by small cable company MHTC, which serves the Mount Horeb, Dodgeville and Blue Mounds areas.

Charter still doesn't have a deal with NFL Network, but, unlike the last two seasons, the Green Bay Packers will not have a game on NFL Network this season, so that doesn't figure to be a major issue for Charter this season.

The deal brought a huge sigh of relief from Vince Sweeney, UW senior associate athletic director for external relations.

"Now that it's resolved, I can't tell you how relieved we are," Sweeney told The Capital Times on Wednesday morning. "We are thrilled."

Putting BTN on Charter ends 18 months of angst in the UW athletic department offices.

"This has been a sore subject for Badger fans," Sweeney said. "A lot of people were angry with the athletic department, so this (lack of a deal) has served as a very uncomfortable backdrop for a long time."

Sweeney is hoping the logistics can be accomplished in swift order so Saturday's UW game can be on Charter.

"We were hopeful for an agreement, and now that it's done, our hope has moved to being optimistic they can get it all set up for Saturday's game," he said.

What does this mean for Badger sports in general?

"It's significant," Sweeney said. "The number of homes nationwide that will now have the Big Ten Network is about 90 million homes, so if a student-athlete in volleyball at the UW has friends and family in California, they can watch you play.

"It can also help in recruiting, if a student-athlete is looking at a Big Ten school. I think this will have a positive impact on the Big Ten, I really do."

The UW also was pleased when Wisconsin's other major cable provider, Time Warner, reached a deal with BTN that was announced Monday night. Time Warner is the dominant cable provider in the Milwaukee and Fox Valley areas, as well as central Ohio.

BTN also has reached a deal -- yet to be officially announced -- with Iowa's major cable company, Mediacom, reported last Friday. Mediacom also has some subscribers in less populous areas of Wisconsin, including the Mauston, New Lisbon and Camp Douglas areas.

Comcast, the largest cable company in the nation and the Big Ten footprint, agreed to a deal earlier this summer.

(Capital Times)

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