J. M. Pressley
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Greed on Display in Comcast - Big Ten Network Dispute

Both the Big Ten and Comcast claim to be putting fans first. Make no mistake—this is about putting money first, not fans.

On one side is a major NCAA conference with designs on increased exposure and revenue for its member institutions. On the other side is the nation's largest cable provider. At stake are millions of dollars in broadcasting rights. The newly created Big Ten Network (BTN) and Comcast have yet to come to terms on a distribution deal. And what started as simple business negotiations has evolved into acrimonious commercials in which each side claims to have the best interest of Big Ten fans at heart.

The arguments by both are disingenuous. What you won't hear on the airwaves is that the real dispute is over each side's best financial interests. The Big Ten wants a bigger revenue stream from its sports by tapping the vast Comcast subscriber base as a basic cable channel. Comcast wants to cash in by making the Big Ten Network a premium "sports tier" subscription with the accompanying higher fees it can charge. Both sides are trying to leverage the best deal for themselves, not for subscribers.

The Big Ten: On the surface, the conference seems to be attempting to charge for many games that have previously been seen for free (or, at least, no additional cost over your cable service). That's added to the broadcast revenues the schools and conference are already receiving for televising the events in the first place. As a side benefit, making BTN part of basic cable means much more widespread exposure—and hence, more money—for its programming.

Comcast: The provider's take on this has been that they don't want to pass on the price of a niche network to its entire subscriber base. Comcast is also balking at a reported asking fee of $1.10 per subscriber within Big Ten states (the conference disputes that number). However, a cynic might point out that making BTN a premium subscription conveniently would lower the price to Comcast while giving it license to pass on higher charges to a much more targeted audience. It would also erode exposure and revenue for BTN's partner (and Comcast rival) Fox Sports Network, which owns a 49% stake in the fledgling network; meanwhile, Comcast routinely includes networks in which it owns a stake (the Golf Channel, for instance) in basic cable packages.

The Big Ten conference is grasping for money and a higher national profile. Comcast is grasping for money and more leverage in the event that other power conferences follow this network model. The Big Ten is confident that its fan base will provide enough grass roots pressure for Comcast to give in, and Comcast is confident that most subscribers won't leave their cable or bundled services for the sake of one channel. All the while, both sides are playing to the crowd while diverting as much attention as possible from the fact that no matter what type of agreement is eventually struck, the cost will be passed on to the viewer.

It's only a matter of time before the sides reach some accord, because there's enough money in play to make it mutually beneficial. But it will be the product of greed, not as either would have you believe, "putting the fans first."

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