Judging from the stream of e-mails over the past couple of weeks, the Big Ten Network needs my help fighting the big, powerful cable and satellite providers. Just when I thought politics and college football were never going to clash, it seems that the stubbornness of television providers has brought that about, and fans are the ones stuck in the middle of the fray. Many Michigan fans weren’t able to see the Wolverines play on television Saturday because Comcast refused to let them see it.
In order to broadcast the game, a deal had to be reached between BTN and cable providers by Aug. 31. Only DirecTV and AT&T reached a contractual agreement with the network by then. The BTN wanted cable providers to offer the channel on basic subscription packages. DirecTV put BTN on its basic satellite package, which costs less than $50 a month. AT&T added the channel to its U-Verse basic digital TV package, which costs $60 a month. Comcast, the biggest cable provider on this side of the state, has refused to carry the channel at all, partly because BTN wants Comcast to pay $1.10 a month for each of its 5 million subscribers in the eight Big Ten Conference states. Comcast says unless that premium comes down, it can only include BTN in it’s premium package, something the BTN won’t accept.
Comcast’s hesitation is difficult to understand. It made $26.3 billion in 2006.
Comcast contends that many subscribers won’t like paying for a channel if they don’t want it. I contend that I don’t like paying for Animal Planet, Home Shopping Network and the Evangelical Television Network at my off-campus house. But I do want ESPN, Fox Sports Net and Comedy Central. After all, isn’t accessibility and choice the beauty of cable television? Comcast itself believes in this ideal. In 2003, Steve Burke, then-president of Comcast Cable, said in regards to the agreement to carry ESPN HD, “The addition of ESPN HD demonstrates our continuing commitment to provide our customers with the most robust high-definition content possible.”
The Big Ten Network presented Michigan’s opener in high definition on DirecTV. DirecTV agreed to put the channel on basic service and publicly explained that the proven loyalty fans have to their respective schools warranted this decision. I can hear all 420,000 living Michigan alumni calling for Comcast’s head. Those who haven’t already dropped their subscriptions, anyway. But that’s just where the problem lies. It costs a lot more to drop Comcast’s service than to keep it, because subscribers often get Internet and telephone service from Comcast’s bundle packages. All three services put together cost $99 a month, a significant savings over purchasing each service individually.
Even though Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany publicly claims that the objective of BTN is more national exposure for the conference, you can effectively translate that into: The Big Ten wants to make more money. After all, the Big Ten provides $94 million in financial aid to its member schools for scholarships. This whole process is cyclical to me: If the BTN is seen by as many people as possible, Michigan and all the other Big Ten schools can attract top athletes with that scholarship money to play on their sports teams. Their performance and that of their teams in turn makes more money for the schools, which can then upgrade their facilities and keep ticket prices down.
What’s a fan to do? Simple: Stop giving Comcast money. If a corporation is so resistant to promoting college athletics, then it has no place in Ann Arbor, East Lansing or Columbus. Only when Comcast starts losing money by the truckload will it see the error it has committed. Comcast has said it’s willing to risk subscribers jumping ship, so why not? When I turn my television to channel 225, I see the BTN logo emblazoned there on the screen, taunting me. I can’t justify paying for something that I can walk across campus to see when others who don’t have that luxury are blacked out. Michigan football isn’t supposed to be for the select few.
Lucky for us, tomorrow’s game will be nationally televised.
Kevin Bunkley can be reached at email@example.com.