If sports fans in the greater Chicagoland region don't know who Jim Corno is, they are certainly familiar with his work. For more than a quarter of a century, Corno has been helming Chicago regional sports networks for various media groups under such monikers as Sportsvision, SportsChannel, Fox Sports Net Chicago and, currently, Comcast SportsNet Chicago. Since October 2004, Corno - a member of the Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame and the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences' prestigious Silver Circle - has been serving as president of CSN Chicago, which counts the Cubs, White Sox, Bulls and Blackhawks and the cable company as owners.
But Corno's influence extends well beyond the Windy City environs. Under his leadership over the years, Chicago TV viewers became the first to have access to stand-alone sports news and around-the-clock programming and got closer to the players via in locker room and postgame press conferences - all of which have become staples of RSN schedules today.
In a conversation with Multichannel.com news editor Mike Reynolds, Corno looks back at some of his favorite moments in Chicago, the evolution of the RSN business into a billion dollar industry and where he sees it going. An edited transcript follows:
Multichannel News: You've been doing this for 27 years, Jim? Does that make you the doyen of RSN GMs?
Jim Corno: (Laughter). In fact, I don't know of anybody of another GM not only with us, but in the industry that's been doing it as long as I have. I've been very fortunate. I may have been doing this longer than the age of some of the GMs, I'm not sure. (Laughter)
MCN: It's a young man's game, just like sports, right?
JC: You're absolutely right.
MCN: Going back to the beginning: What made you make a jump from the station side to what was a relatively novel concept?
JC: I was working for the Post-Newsweek in Detroit at WDIV. I had been with them 10 years and my goal was to become a general manager and I talked to Joel Chaseman, who was president of Post Newsweek Stations. We had four stations and he loved all the GMs, so he didn't see it happening for a while. But they were looking at buying into these new regional sports networks, Chicago Sportsvision and in Hartford. And I'm thinking, ‘Sports and television? Other than my family, there's nothing I love better.'
So I interviewed with Jack Williams at a Post Newsweek seminar and was introduced me to [former Cablevision Systems vice chairman] Marc Lustgarten. This was in the fall of '83. I got the job and came to run Sportsvision of Chicago in March of ‘84.
MCN: How many homes at launch?
JC: We had 13,000 homes at launch. Pay subs. The way the business was offered, it was through OnTV, which was a scrambled signal thing that you had to buy this converter box and put it in your attic. It wasn't that difficult to figure how to descramble it, and a lot of people were stealing the signal. But there were 13,000 subs and it was a very expensive pay service.
MCN: How many other regionals were around back then and did you see yourself as a kind of pioneer of sorts?
JC: Well there were a few. New York of course was big. They had Sports Channel, New York and Madison Square Garden. Prism, in Philadelphia, which was a hybrid, it had pay movies, plus the Flyers and sports. There was a Prism in New England that I think was really based in Hartford; they had the Hartford Whalers. There may have been [NESN]. There was Prime Ticket-it may have started around then -- but that was pretty much it.
MCN: What was on Sportsvision at the outset?
JC: We had the four teams who actually founded Sportsvision - the White Sox, the Bulls, the Blackhawks and the Chicago Sting, the indoor soccer team, which was a very big deal in Chicago when I came here in the '80s. They had just won a championship, and they were outdoor and indoor. They used to fill the old Chicago Stadium.
MCN: How quickly did it take root in the marketplace?
JC: Cable deregulation in 1986 helped us a lot because that gave us the opportunity to go to the distributors and say, ‘Look, instead of putting us in this pay thing, now that the cable industry is deregulated, you want to build the value of your basic cable.' That was a big part of our growing success.
Some distributors didn't want us on basic because they liked the pay revenue. But as a pay channel, it would've been very difficult for us to make it in that environment because team performance is such an important factor in ratings and viewership, etcetera. Then, there were customers who were White Sox fans, but not Blackhawk fans. So they bought during the summer, then turned it off in the winter and visa versa. It was important for us to establish ourselves as a basic service and we were fortunate enough to have deregulation coming along in '86, plus having Michael Jordan didn't hurt.
MCN: The glory days...
JC: Yeah. Well I moved here in '84 and that was the year they drafted Michael Jordan. It was shortly thereafter that Jerry Reinsdorf purchased The Bulls. And that was just the beginning, the emergence of the Bulls. As they grew, it helped our business -- not just the regional sports network but also our distributors because we had so many Bulls games.
MCN: You've worked for several different owners over the years.
JC: When I first came here in 1984, the ownership was strictly Cablevision. Along the way, Cablevision would have different partners come in and be a part of the business, etcetera. NBC was a partner for a while. Now, the tables are reversed and we own NBC, but back then NBC was a partner in our business. But so it was Cablevision first and then Rainbow, their programming division...Then from Rainbow and Cablevision, there were a number of partners - Fox, NBC, etcetera.
And then in 2003, the teams here opted out of the agreement with Cablevision and elected to own the business themselves, along with Comcast.
MCN: You were the first to go 24-7?
JC: We went 24-7 in the late '80s and we were also the first one to do seven nights of news programming, stand-alone programming. A lot of people were doing postgames or pregames, but we had an actual news operation. Back then, you could go to Major League Baseball and you could get games that didn't involve teams in your market.
MCN: Things have changed.
JC: That was a big plus. And then we developed programming, things like the Sportswriters on TV and the [news report] Sports Channel Report. There was also a group of regional networks that kind of had an unofficial relationship where we would share programming. So I might go to a regional in Minneapolis or Milwaukee or St. Louis and take a soccer game that the St. Louis University Billikens might be playing and be able to play that up here.
Another thing that helped us build something here, which I think fans appreciate, is we were the ones who started back during the Michael Jordan era, going live into the Bulls locker room after the game. We'd do extended coverage and air the press conferences. Now everybody's doing it.
MCN: Was the Jordan era the most exciting time for the city relative to sports?
JC: The Michael Jordan years, when you look at them in total, with the six championships, and there were some very exciting years even before that. That 10 year-period would stand alone, but there were a lot of individual years with teams, like '05 with the White Sox, the Blackhawks last year, and the Cubs winning some divisions, where teams really captured the marketplace. But I don't think any team captured the marketplace over an extended period of time like the Bulls did during the '90s.
MCN: This past spring, the network broke records several times with the Bulls and Blackhawks. How does that play into next year's business?
JC: We had a very successful year with the Blackhawks in terms of viewership, with advertising. And we'll experience the same thing next year with the Bulls and I think the Blackhawks will be even stronger.
MCN: What happens if the Bulls don't play because of an NBA lockout? What kind of a programming do you have to back fill that hole?
JC: We'll rely on hockey a lot. But you can't replace the Bulls.
MCN: Can you dip more into college football and basketball?
JC: Those are options we'll pursue. There are a lot of things available to us that we can't air because of our pro schedule. We're evaluating all the options at this point.
MCN: What are we looking for next? Streaming of all the games?
JC: Maybe. We did stream some Bulls games last year.
MCN: What was the reception?
JC: Let me put it this way -- it was not worth the investment.
MCN: You had to pay a license or a transfer fee or something like that to the league?
JC: Yes. But forget that. [It was] the costs and manpower involved. I don't have the crystal ball, but I know that Comcast Sportsnet Chicago is going to be there, with whatever the technology is. Over the last couple of years, CSNChicago.com has become a high priority, building content that's unique. You can watch a game on CSN Chicago, you can see a postgame show, but this gives you the whole thing. You can watch interviews on CSNChicago.com all night.
MCN: You've hired sports writers from local papers and other guys that are coming up through the ranks to make that all happen?
JC: Yeah. We have hired five writers who work for us, whose job it is to cover the teams for CSN Chicago. Now they also appear on air, they're on the linear network, just like a lot of our linear network people appear on CSNChicago.com. So we look at this now as if we're going to hire a writer, a talent, an anchor, that person has to be able to contribute not just to the linear network, but also to our website. And so we're finding that's helping grow that aspect of it.
MCN: Are the Comcast RSNs, working on a national overlay news show?
JC: I'm not involved in that; that's a question for [Versus and Sports Net president] Jon Litner and his people. It would certainly make sense. I know Fox has tried this before.
MCN: What' your favorite sport and your favorite venue?
JC: Well my favorite sport is easy, it's baseball. I played baseball as a kid. I was so-so at it, but I enjoyed it. The venues, in this town we're going from old Chicago Stadium, old Comiskey Park, new US Cellular, new United Center, still old Wrigley. So really the experience is different at each one and I enjoy them all. I'm not being political here.
MCN: Please provide some perspective on the growth of the RSN business, which has caused a fair share of consternation along the way.
JC: Oh yeah. I think one of the key things is the exposure, which has been good for the fans, teams and distributors, because, as I said earlier, I think sports had a lot to do with driving viewership to our distributors.
We've meant revenue to the teams, which helps them stay competitive. To fans, again, the exposure of having all the games on TV, that's a big plus for a fan who can't get to every game, but still wants to see every game.
I still think that we add a lot of value to our distributors, not only in terms of viewership but they've grown their ad sales business over the years. And I think just as a business, the fresh expanded content that we've been able to provide on CSNChicago.com that's not available anywhere else, I think that's a value that we all share in.
MCN: Do you see more team, single-entity, RSNs entering the field as we move forward here?
JC: I would think that over time you will, sure. It's where teams are strong enough to drive it themselves. But I also think you'll see this being done in partnership with distributors because that makes the most sense.
I think we have the best working model here: where it's the teams and the major distributor, Comcast, as partners. There is an incentive there for all of them to work together to grow the business. Now does that mean at some point somebody else isn't going to come in and try do this on their own. It could happen. But we've got a pretty long-term agreement here. It's not something that's on the front burner at this point, but it's something you always think about.
MCN: How much longer are you going to be doing this?
JC: That's a good question for Jon Litner and the board. I hope to be doing this for a while and I still find it challenging and as long as I do, I hope that they'll want me to continue doing it.