Fox Goes to School, CSTV Calls a Foul

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Clever repackaging or squeeze play? Fox Sports Net and College Sports Television had differing opinions last week when plans were announced to convert the struggling trio of Fox Sports Digital out-of-market services into targeted college-sports channels.

Fox College Sports (FCS) networks presumably will compete with independent CSTV and ESPN for a multitude of TV rights, ranging from high-profile football and basketball games to less-viewed Olympic sports like lacrosse and gymnastics.

CSTV president Brian Bedol declared Fox’s creation of Fox College Sports was designed to “intimidate” his year-old network into either partnering with Fox or throwing in the towel.

Bedol — who co-founded Classic Sports Network, then sold it to ESPN (it’s now ESPN Classic) — said he and Fox were involved in discussions concerning a potential union recently, but would not go into detail.

“We will not be bullied into doing something that’s bad for us and the industry,” Bedol said. “This is a desperate ploy to save a failing business.”

Fox Sports Net president Bob Thompson would not confirm any acquisition discussions with CSTV, which primarily offers Olympics-based sporting events like track and field and lacrosse, but said there was no power play at work. He also said the Fox digital sports networks are profitable despite low distribution.

“In no way is this us trying to intimidate CSTV into any type of a deal,” Thompson said.

Created in 2001 as cable’s alternative to DirecTV Inc. and Dish Network’s multichannel-sports offerings, the three Fox digital sports channels covering the Atlantic, Central and Pacific regions have only been able to secure 3 million cable households.

Fox Sports executives said during a conference call last week that the transition effort was made to give the services a stronger identity.

“We’re not changing the nature of the channel in midstream,” Fox Cable executive vice president of affiliate sales and marketing Lindsay Gardner said. “We’re just emphasizing what has always been the core of the channel. Digital has proven not to be very descriptive of what’s on these channels.”

Gardner projected that cable sports-tier penetration will spread by 15% to 25% over the next few years, significantly improving the distribution prospects for FCS.

Added Thompson: “To a certain extent, we’re a slave to how quickly the sports-tier penetration increases, and we’ll do whatever we can to work with cable operators to increase the number of homes that carry the sports tiers.”

Comcast Corp. officials said the networks will continue to be available in former AT&T Broadband systems and are expected to be rolled out on a number of Comcast systems as part of the MSO’s new sports tier, projected to launch in late summer or early fall.

But at least one cable operator executive who wished to remain anonymous said he wants to see what programming alterations Fox makes to the networks before determining whether to offer the channels.

Thompson said he hopes to pursue carriage deals with DirecTV and Dish owner EchoStar Communications Corp., but that’s unlikely since both satellite services offer the same programming through full-time carriage of all of Fox’s regional sports networks.

Representatives from EchoStar and DirecTV could not be reached for comment.

Fox plans to enhance the channels by offering new national ad-insertion and cross-promotional opportunities.

The programming basically remains the same. The three Fox College Sports networks will continue to feature more than 800 live men’s and women’s NCAA events over the course of a year, all originating from Fox’s 20 owned and/or affiliated regional sports networks.

Fox Sports Net also holds national rights to Pac-10 college football and basketball games, as well as Big 12 college football contests that will air on the channels. Fox Sports Net also holds exclusive Sunday night rights to Atlantic Coast Conference college basketball games.

Each of the three networks will focus on programming and events from the major conferences in their respective regions. To that end, Fox will remove all shoulder programming created by the regionals that features pro teams.

Thompson confirmed Fox will bid for future national college sports packages as they become available, but would not reveal specifics.

“We will use this as a springboard to acquire other programming,” he said.

Representatives from ESPN would only say “Every deal that comes up there’s competition for college sports.” Multichannel News reported on May 10 that ESPN has studied creating a new channel — possibly to be called “ESPN U” — and at one point was preparing to announce it at last month’s National Show, but then decided not to.

The highest-rated events are college football and college basketball games from the top conferences, and ESPN has locked up most of those rights for the foreseeable future.

ESPN has cable-exclusive coverage of college-football games from the Southeast Conference, Big Ten, Atlantic Coast Conference, Big East, Conference USA, Mountain West and Western Athletic Conference, as well as college-basketball rights to more than a dozen more conferences.

Bedol said that rights to college sports events come up almost on a monthly basis, but would not say if any major conference rights would be on the table in the near future.

“We’re always evaluating what’s good, what’s available, what’s interesting, so it’s tough to look out a year when we’re in the marketplace everyday looking at the best of what’s available,” he said.

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