CSTV Continues Fight For Acceptance

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Celebrating its first anniversary, CSTV: College Sports Television is planning to roll out a new sports instructional-programming initiative that it hopes will bolster the network’s value among operators.

CSTV this fall will launch CSTV University or CSTV U, an umbrella moniker for 100 30-minute original programs aimed at instruction and training across 10 different sports.

CEO Brian Bedol said the shows, which will utilize the expertise of more than 35 different coaches, will not only air on the linear network, but will be available for video-on-demand and broadband applications.

“It will provide [aspiring athletes] a platform to help them become the best athletes they can be,” network worthy to play on the same field as established networks like ESPN, Bedol said. “With our offering, CSTV U on VOD, operators can make it extremely convenient for their customers to experience this innovative, educational programming.”

OPERATOR APPEAL

The show is one of several aggressive initiatives that CSTV — which currently counts 7 million subscribers, mostly on digital sports tiers — has underwritten to help build its appeal to operators.

From the CSTV Primetime and CSTV Scoreboard live studio shows, which originate from the network’s high-tech studios in New York, to its live coverage, Bedol said the service had to jump out of the gate quickly with quality programming to gain operator attention.

“We know we’re asking distributors for valuable bandwidth, so we’d better start delivering quality programming from the outset,” Bedol said. “We’re trying to produce enough strong original programming that it really supports the value of the service.”

In fact, the network, which launched April 7, 2003, has parlayed its emphasis on original programming, along with a decision to accept placement on digital sports tiers, into a successful inaugural strategy. The network has reached distribution deals with DirecTV Inc., Time Warner Cable, Insight Communications Co. and Adelphia Communications Corp., agreements that ultimately will represent access to more than 20 million households, according to network executives.

“The important thing for the network is that it has carriage,” said Kagan Associates sports analyst John Mansell. “A lot of other networks that launched within the past year don’t have the subscribers that [CSTV] has.”

Bedol said the network’s sports-tier placement — which other networks have shied away from, due to limited carriage — has actually contributed to its success.

“I don’t think we’d be in half the markets we’re in if sports tiers didn’t exist,” he said. “That said, I don’t think anyone will be satisfied — distributors included — with sports tiers at 10% or 20% penetration levels. There is a joint programmer-distributor effort to see new programming services be in as many homes as possible.”

And CSTV has driven its launches without having to give away the service for free or surrender equity. Bedol would not reveal the network’s rate card, but sources said monthly licensing fees range in the high teens.

“The industry recognizes the cost value of sports and the price of the networks are valued based on their category and competitors,” said Bedol. “We’re in a category where services are $2-plus on basic, so if you had an original exclusive sports network that was 10% of that on a digital tier, that’s pretty valuable. You can’t look at it as one-size-fits-all — it’s what is it relative to the category.”

To further build value with operators, Bedol said the network is offering HDTV feeds from some of its live sports events. Additionally, CSTV is offering about 10 hours a month of video-on-demand programming, mostly documentary fare.

The network, however, also offers timely programming for VOD distribution. Bedol said the network just last week offered operators a recently-produced documentary dubbed UConn Nation, based on the success of the University of Connecticut’s college men’s and women’s basketball teams. “This is a example of taking a program related to market experience and making it ubiquitously available as quickly as possible using new technology,” he said.

SPONSOR-SUPPORTED

CSTV’s limited distribution base has not hurt its ability to attract blue-chip advertisers. The network was able to lure Coca-Cola and Nike to sponsor several of its programming initiatives, and hopes to draw additional advertisers during the upcoming year.

“Anytime you have smart partners make a bet on a new business, it gives others confidence in that business,” Bedol said. “The support we have from the ad community is an illustration of their confidence in the network as well as their recognition that a vertically focused, exclusively college-sports network has value to them.”

Looking ahead, Bedol hopes to establish the network as a top-50 service in operators’ minds.

“Our hope over the next year [is] we’ll be able to illustrate that this is a network that deserves to be marketed and promoted in the same breath as MTV, Discovery and ESPN,” he said.

“We are certainly as valuable to operators as a network like Animal Planet which is terrific, but if animal lovers are valuable, college-sports fans are as well.”

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