The Big Ten Network bagged its biggest MSO carriage deal to date, reaching an agreement with Comcast last week after months of negotiations, a move that the college-sports network hopes will result in other carriage deals with other operators in the near future.
The Comcast deal comes after months of speculation that the two were close to an agreement — the first reports surfaced in March — and would appear to pave the way for other MSOs to sign deals with the network. With the Comcast pact, BTN should increase its carriage from 30 million homes to 35 million homes.
BTN has deals with satellite giants Dish Network and DirecTV, as well as several smaller MSOs like Insight Communications and overbuilders like RCN and WideOpenWest.
The network still has to reach agreements with Time Warner Cable, Charter Communications and Mediacom Communications, who collectively represent between 6.5 million and 7 million homes in the eight-state Big Ten Conference footprint.
Representatives from Charter, Mediacom and TWC said that they were currently negotiating with BTN and were hopeful favorable deals could be reached.
According to the Comcast deal, the MSO will initially launch BTN as part of its expanded basic tier to promote the network in seven of the eight states in the Big Ten Conference (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania), beginning Aug. 15. Comcast does not have subscribers in the eighth Big Ten State, Iowa. The Philadelphia market will launch the promotional service on a broadly distributed digital tier.
In the spring of 2009, Comcast may elect to move the network to a broadly distributed digital tier in most of those systems. Those customers also will have access to live Big Ten games and events in high definition, Big Ten programming via the cable company's video on demand platform and conference-related content via Comcast.net.
Outside of the Big Ten states, Comcast has the option of not carrying the channel or putting it on any level of service, including a specialized sports tier.
While neither side would reveal financial terms of the deal, sources familiar with both parties said Comcast will pay about 70 cents per subscriber per month for the network, below the $1-per-sub price tag BTN was said to be looking for with other deals.
BTN president Mark Silverman said that the main reason for the lengthy negotiations was hammering out the VOD, HD and new media portions of the deal.
“There really wasn't any kind of specific hangup,” Silverman said. “It was just vetting through a lot of very detailed complex issues that in many circumstances, never had to be negotiated between a cable network and a provider before.”
BTN, owned by the conference's 11 member colleges and Fox National Cable Sports Networks, also appears to have made a big concession by allowing the MSO to carry the network on a digital or sports tier. That has been taboo with other networks — because it limits the number of homes where the network is available and in turns reduces advertising revenue — but was not a big concern for BTN.
Comcast has about 6 million total subscribers in the eight-state area, about 5 million of which subscribe to the digital tier. It was that type of high penetration rate that made BTN open to a deal that did not include basic-tier carriage.
For operators with lower digital penetration rates, that could be a different story, said Fox Sports Network president Bob Thompson.
“We're looking for broad distribution,” Thompson said.
But Thompson added that the Comcast deal shows that BTN is willing to bend a little to get a deal done, which should help it in its negotiations with other MSOs.
“Every deal is different because everyone's got a different size and everyone is in different phases of their various digital rollouts,” Thompson said. “By resolving the issue with Comcast, we certainly have an opportunity to go back and broaden the discussions with those MSOs we haven't signed.”
And while Comcast can move the service to digital after the promotional period, it can only do so to its most broadly distributed digital service.
“What that gives us is the knowledge that even if it is moved it's still before a significant majority of all of their customers,” Silverman said. “From our standpoint, if we're still able to reach a significant majority of people, were very comfortable with that.”
And Silverman hopes that willingness to be flexible will help it in negotiations with the other MSOs.
“We feel that there's enough there to work with to get these deals done,” Silverman said. “We think we've proven we're willing to be flexible and creative as a result of this deal and we look forward to talking to those guys and getting those deals done too.”