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Carriage Disputes & The Positioning Of Stadium

By Dr. Steve Dittmore

As part of a class lecture about the 1984 Supreme Court ruling in NCAA v. Board of Regents, I discuss the legendary Nov. 19, 1966 “Game of the Century” between unbeatens No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Michigan State. The game ended in a 10-10 tie because Notre Dame opted to run out the clock to guarantee themselves a share of the national championship.

 

In that lecture I cite Keith Dunnavant’s book The Fifty-Year Seduction which notes that, because of the NCAA’s television rules, the majority of the country watched Tennessee-Kentucky live instead of the drama in East Lansing. Obviously, these were the pre-Board of Regents days and they harken back, in a way, to a simpler time. A time when a viewer knew where to turn the TV dial to watch college football and hear Keith Jackson or Chris Schenkel.

 

Today, of course, nearly every college football game is broadcast somewhere somehow. One estimate placed the number of non-broadcast Division I games in 2017 at 25. In fact, as we embark on the 2018 college football season, the most necessary thing college football fans need is not a foam finger nor tailgate spot, but Matt Sarzyniak’s meticulously curated TV schedule. This indispensable site lists the TV homes, digital or cable or OTA, for all FBS and FCS college football games. It is said you can’t tell the players without a scorecard. Well, you can’t tell the broadcast home of your alma mater without this site.

 

Consider the Week 1 schedule for games between Aug. 30 and Sept. 3. Nearly two dozen different networks will broadcast a Division I college football game that week. The challenge for college fans is to not only identify the difference among ESPN2, ESPN3, and ESPN+, but to know how to gain access to the appropriate platform to watch their favorite team. And finding the right platform to watch all of the college football possible is an increasingly difficult task.

 

Fans need to know the difference between Hulu and YouTube. West Coast fans know DirecTV is not the right place for Pac-12, but Fubo is. And let’s not get started with Spectrum, which used to be called Charter when it bought Time Warner.

 

Until a settlement was reached this past Friday (8/24/2018) night, fans living living in areas serviced by Comcast might not have been able to watch games on the Big Ten Network. Had it occurred, it wouldn’t have been the first time subscribers of certain cable systems missed early season Big Ten football. Remember watching when Appalachian State beat Michigan in the Big House in 2007? No? Neither do a lot of people. It was the first game broadcast on BTN, but the network was not carried on Comcast until 2008.

 

To the White House spokespersons who have given us such wonderful memes like “alternative facts” and “truth isn’t truth”, I give you a decade worth of carriage debates featuring similar doublespeak. All of them are the same – two businesses disagreeing, blaming the other for the current state of reality, and engaging in a public information campaign designed to have their version of facts resonate loudest with consumers.

 

I first wrote about the public relations aspects of carriage battles in a 2009 article in the International Journal of Sport Communication. In that article, my co-author Trent Seltzer and I analyzed media framing around the 2007 NFL Network carriage dispute. We identified pro-NFL frames such as “blame cable” (fans are not getting to see games because of cable operators), “broad appeal” (NFL Network should be on basic cable because of its broad appeal), and “premium tier” (cable operators want subscribers to pay for a premium sports tier). We identified pro-cable frames such as “blame NFL” (fans are not getting to see games because of the NFL Network), “make money” (the NFL Network is only concerned with trying to make money), and “pay content” (the NFL Network wants all subscribers to pay for content that only a few people want).

 

We wanted to know which side was more effective in having media carry their message – the NFL or the cable operators. Our study analyzed 149 relevant media articles in 2007 and 2008 and found that when coding for the predominant frame, 43.6% of the articles were pro-NFL, 19.5% were pro-cable, and 36.9% were balanced.

 

A decade has passed since the NFL Network debate and much has changed in the landscape of media rights. The prevalence of competition in the video content space has disrupted the traditional consumption of live sports. Carriage debates have become much more frequent. In some ways, we may have become desensitized to them, despite the public relations efforts of the key players in these discussions.

 

The NFL Network’s advocacy site in 2006, iwantnflnetwork.com, was created to provide the “truth about monopolies” (I still have the screenshot from the site) and suggest alternatives to monopoly cable systems. At the same time, the American Cable Association, which represents approximately 800 small, regional, independent MVPDs, created sportschoicenow.org to explain the “facts versus myths” of the debate and facilitate communication with members of Congress. For reasons I can’t imagine, the ACA website is still active, while the NFLN site redirects to the NFLN home page. The Big Ten Network started its own informational site, keepbigten.com, as a way to present its side of the story during its recent Comcast negotiations.

 

Comcast, which maintained a relatively quiet profile during the BTN negotiations, should be well-versed in its public relations talking points in carriage disputes. For six years beginning in 2010, the Tennis Channel battled unsuccessfully with Comcast in court, in front of the Federal Communications Commission, and in public opinion to gain carriage on the same distribution tier as the Comcast-owned Golf Channel. I wrote at length about the nuances of this debate in the Fall 2017 Journal of Sport Media. My analysis drew the following conclusions about this case, both of which had application to the Big Ten Network-Comcast situation.

 

First, Comcast successfully argued the Tennis Channel represented niche programming which did not appeal to all viewers, and, therefore, belonged on a sport-only tier. This argument is in line with the “pay content” frame we observed in the NFL Network study published in 2009. The counter-argument, of course, is that ALL cable programming is niche program to an extent. Cupcake Wars, Shark Week, and the Kardashians are examples of programming which do not have universal appeal, yet most people pay for the programming through their cable bundle. Heck, even fans of Fox News are likely paying for MSNBC. What the Tennis Channel was unable to convince the DC Circuit Court of in 2016 was that Comcast had discriminated against the Tennis Channel even though the Comcast-owned Golf Channel (niche programming?) was treated differently than the Tennis Channel by being distributed broadly on basic tiers. Indeed, according to SBJ’s John Ourand, Comcast is relegating BTN to the niche sports tier in non-Big Ten markets.

 

The second application of the Tennis Channel-Comcast debate is the market power held by Comcast. DC Circuit Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh, the current nominee for the vacant Supreme Court seat, wrote the opinion, stating “Comcast does not have market power in the national video programming distribution market, the relevant market analyzed by the FCC in this case” (717 F.3d 2013, p. 12). No MVPD has significant national market power, but most of them have significant local market power. As the dominant provider in a given market, Comcast can dictate what content it carries to consumers. Sure, alternative MVPDs such as Hulu or Sling exits, but those OTT providers rely on high-speed internet systems for optimal use. In many cases, the dominant internet provider in a market is, wait, also the dominant video programming distributor. So switching from Comcast to Hulu in order to watch the Big Ten Network, as the BTN advocacy site suggested, may not solve the problem.

 

The post-Board of Regents world in 2018 allows college football fans more viewing of free, live college football than ever before. Using Matt Sarzyniak’s football schedule site, I counted more than 20 Division I football games which will be available to consumers this weekend without a cable/satellite/OTT subscription. Consumers merely need a digital antenna to pull down over the air networks, a high-speed internet connection (either broadband or wireless data), and a few free downloaded apps. Ready? Here you go.

 

Both ABC and Fox have tripleheaders on Saturday, Sept. 1, while CBS and NBC each have single OTA games. ABC also adds a single game on Sunday, Sept. 2. Stadium will air four games through its app or Facebook page. Pluto.tv, free streaming television available over the web or through an app, will broadcast four Big Sky Conference games, one on Friday, Aug. 31, and three on Saturday, Sept.1. NEC Front Row will stream four games live on its website over the weekend, one on Thursday, Aug. 30, and three on Saturday. The Patriot League Network and SportsLive (Colonial Athletic Association) each add a single game to the weekend schedule, and throw in a few games produced by the home school (Houston Baptist, Drake) and a college football fan can watch more than two dozen different games for free, or for the cost of an antenna and internet service.

 

While that is clearly an improvement from pre-Board of Regents days when fans had access to maybe two games a day, we all now this is not solely about quantity of the games available. It is also about fan and alumni bases for large schools such as Iowa and Penn State whose identity covers entire states, not just small college towns. It is also about availability in general.

 

The biggest innovator in this space is Stadium, whose CEO was interviewed this past week on Robert Seidman’s @SportsTVRatings podcast. It is well worth the 30 minutes if you have not already listened to it. I wrote about the potential advantages Stadium had in the marketplace for ADU last September, and it seems despite the failed Sinclair-Tribune merger, Stadium is seeking to disrupt this space even further in 2018.

 

In Seidman’s podcast, Stadium CEO Jason Coyle talks of wanting to be the most accessible sports network and, indeed, that is the case. “Well first we start with the premise that our goal is to become the most widely distributed and easily accessible Sports Network that there is and launching 40 years after cable gives us a real advantage in that we’re not tied into any sort of Legacy MSO deals or any sort of other restrictions as it relates to our right so we have,” Coyle said. Through its Sinclair partnership, Stadium is available free via a digital antenna. Or, the app can be downloaded free. Games are also streamed through the Stadium Facebook page.

 

Stadium benefits from a rapidly changing content model where distribution is increasingly the most valuable portion of the value chain. When the Big Ten Network launched in 2007, cable and satellite distribution was at its peak. As cord-cutting and other disruptions have changed the marketplace, legacy media networks are frequently finding themselves at odds with distribution systems. How would the ecosystem be different had the Big Ten, SEC, NFL, and other league-branded networks taken Stadium’s approach and made their content accessible anywhere, rather than putting content in one place and hoping it is distributed without issue?

 

One thing is for sure, we would not have these silly carriage debates.

 

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