17 August 2007

Welcome to Comcast Country

The title of this post comes from a sign in Philadelphia's Wachovia Center, home of both the 76ers and Flyers. Might as well hang it from every venue in the Bay Area, since it's just as valid a description here as it is back east.

Comcast quietly took majority control of FSN Bay Area at the end of June, and knowing their history they're going to put their stamp on the channel sooner rather than later. FSNBA hasn't shown signs of change yet, but expect rebranding to occur this fall as the baseball season ends and the new Sharks' and Warriors' preseasons begin.

What else should we as the viewing public expect? First off, the SportsNite program shown on Comcast SportsNet West (Central Valley) should become a staple here. CSN also tends to have pre and postgame shows more frequently than FSNBA, so that should be expected too. FOX will still own 40% of the channel, but it remains to be seen whether they will contribute FOX-sourced content or become a silent partner. I for one would not be saddened to be rid of the litany of failed generic highlight shows proffered by FOX Sports Net.

On most Comcast digital systems one can find Channel 400, or Comcast SportsNet West. There's already a discontinuity between the Central Valley version and the Bay Area version due to the channel's focus on the Kings and other Sacramento-area teams. It would make sense for 400 in the Bay Area to become the overflow channel that is currently FSN+ (410). Channel 400 could be renamed CSN2. That would free up capacity for some other niche channel in Comcast's "Digital Sports Tier." The likeliest possibility would be Johnny-come-lately MLB network, which is slated to launch prior to the 2009 baseball season. Comcast owns an equity share of MLB Network, which gives both parties incentive to feature the channel prominently.

In the Central Valley the situation is a little more complex since both FSN and CSN occupy expanded basic cable channels. Blackouts would still be in effect for certain properties such as Warriors telecasts. Comcast may find it hard to combine programming, so my guess is that they'll keep them separate as CSNBA and CSNW. There is no Channel 400 in the Central Valley so they would have to create one if they wanted to have a CSN2 offering.

An opening also exists for an A's-branded network should they be interested. While Comcast bared its teeth when MLB along with the Nats and O's started MASN, the cable provider has shown a willingness to entertain additional regional sports networks. The catch? They want a cut, of course. A prime example of this is the Mets' SportsNet New York, of which Comcast and Time Warner have equity shares. Should the A's decide they want in on this party, an equity share appears to be the admission fee for placement within a cable system. There is a potential for the A's as Comcast may help defray some startup and operational costs. For the A's, caveat emptor applies as despite the success of many RSNs success is not guaranteed. This deal would be open to the Giants as well - they may be even more interested since their ratings are consistently higher than the A's.

There are other forces at work for Comcast. Recently they won a lawsuit filed against them by the NFL. Comcast wanted to move the ever-growing NFL Network to their Digital Sports Tier and charge a little extra to boot in order to make up the cost. The NFL wanted the channel to stay in the regular digital lineup with no separate premium, so they sued (and lost). Now that NFL Network is on the separate tier, viewers are forced to consider more thoroughly the $5 per month package. What's in the Digital Sports Tier? Depends on where you are. It is supposed to include most of the following:
  • NFL Network
  • NBA TV (in some markets)
  • College Sports TV
  • FOX Soccer Channel
  • Speed Channel
  • TVG Horseracing Network
  • FOX College Sports (multiple regional channels)

All of these channels take up residence in the 400-420 zone. The peripheral ESPN channels such as ESPN Classic and ESPNEWS are not in the list above even though they are usually in this range because of the exclusivity of ESPN's multichannel package deal with the cable providers. I don't think it would be easy to move a CSN2-type channel to the extra-cost tier. It would make sense for them to push other new RSN's such as an A's or Giants channel to that tier - and it would give Comcast justification to charge extra for that tier.

As for satellite? DirecTV pioneered the concept of a special sports tier years ago. So it's pretty much business as usual. Dish has their own as well.


Jeff P. said...

I just wish that these media conglomerates could come to a simple and mutual understanding of the current blackout rules. They are byzantine and make absolutely no sense. For instance, why does MLB allow for games to be blacked out on EI for people who are hundreds of miles from the broadcast source? It's not realistic to expect that they can entice these customers to go to the game....yet they are perfectly willing to allow their product to be hidden from people who would otherwise pay to see it. I'm no business major, but this appears to me to be piss poor marketing/negotiating. Plus, there is little doubt that the technology is in place that will allow the "blackout areas" to receive only the signal locally generated for that market, which should serve to increase the value to the local channel (KICU) extending it's reach and advertising power.

Maybe I just don't get it.

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Anonymous said...

How will this work?? does that mean no more FSN programming (such as Pac 10 football and basketball and "The Best Damn Sports Show Period") on basic cable in the Bay Area??

RB said...

I'd love it if Comcast did something similar to Directv - offer all the FSN regional channels. I'd love to watch Fox Sports North and Univ of Minnesota hockey.