16 April 2008

The teams need elbow room on TV

Last week, we hit one of those so-called "perfect storm" situations that can occur with scheduling. On the main CSN channel, the A's and Jays were locked up in a tight, late inning battle in Toronto. Waiting in the wings was the first playoff game between the Sharks and Flames. And the Giants were playing the Padres on the side stage, CSN Plus.

The A's game ran a not-so-tidy 3:31, forcing the Sharks game to start without a TV broadcast. Instead of doing a picture-in-picture or split screen, CSN chose to keep the A's game on while providing delayed updates on the Sharks game. Even though there was no HD broadcast of the A's game while the Sharks game was to be in HD, the Sharks game could not be carried in HD until CSN switched feeds. Only after Bobby Crosby's bases-clearing double and the final A's out in the top of the 9th did the switch occur. Just as the switch happened, the Ryan Clowe scored for the Sharks over six minutes into the first period. Unfortunately, the Sharks were down 2-0 leading up to that point. It was quite a debacle as angry Sharks fans called CSN to vent their frustration.

There are really three issues here. First is the production choice made. AFAIK it's pretty much the same staff from the FSN days with some promotions and attrition thrown in, but it mostly feels the same. Hopefully they've learned from this. Second is the HD problem. If there is an SD away baseball game and an HD home hockey game, why can't they split it so that the HD channel carries the HD broadcast? I'm not up on the technical side but it doesn't sound that difficult. At least the folks with the HDTVs - the bars and the regular folks who've plunked down a couple grand for a flat panel - can be taken care of. There is a long term issue of having only a single HD channel to begin with, but I'll get to that later. Third, and most important, is that the juggling act that CSN does with the four area teams needs to stop. It was confusing from the first day that FSN Plus launched with its dozens of different channels on different systems. I'm sure that Comcast is attempting their best given the circumstances. But the situation as it stands is untenable. If you're a subscriber of Comcast's digital cable service or the sports packages on one of the satellite companies, you're paying a premium for this. It's just not a good way to do business.

If you're wondering how the Bay Area fares compared to other similar markets, you might be surprised to find out that we are entirely unique in that in this market there is a single regional sports network, majority owned by the predominant local cable provider. So it shouldn't surprising that when the Giants bought a stake in the new CSNBA,
someone would object - the Warriors and owner Chris Cohan. Especially because Cohan in a previous life was a local cable operator, which probably means he knows something about the business.

Take a look at the chart below. I've mostly included other markets with two baseball teams, because they're the only ones with similar scheduling dynamics. In LA, there are two full-fledged channels with exclusivity agreements for the three major teams there, leaving the lesser teams to battle for scraps. It's not a perfect situation, but at least it lends stability for Angels, Dodgers, and Lakers fans. In NYC there are no less than four independent RSNs, all of which are owned in large part by their respective teams. While this makes it tough to push cable providers to include all of these RSNs in their limited space, at least it allows the market to determine the outcome. In Chicago, the two baseball teams are helped enormously by splitting games on the Superstation WGN and CSN Chicago. And in a still-puzzling, archaic move, the Wirtz family continues to not broadcast the majority of Blackhawks home games, freeing up space on the local RSN. In Baltimore and DC, MLB and O's-created MASN carries the two baseball teams, while the local Comcast RSN sued MLB and the O's because they felt they had the right to negotiate a deal and were blocked from doing so when MASN was launched. Currently, CSN Mid Atlantic carries the winter sports.

Comcast appears to be addressing the Bay Area's logjam by adding yet another CSN Plus channel, called CSN Plus 2. There's currently a placeholder for it at channel 412 if you're on digital cable, plus DirecTV and Dish also have it. Perhaps they're waiting to broadcast on it until next season or until more of the smaller cable systems pick it up, which is not a given. Having yet another Plus channel is only going to create more confusion.

That leaves one major issue looming: What about HD? Having two standard definition Plus channels does nothing to add HD offerings when in the coming years the local teams will do nothing but expand their HD schedules. This is a real quandary for Comcast, as they are stuck with real bandwidth limitations that restrict how quickly they can add HD channels. The normal convention is that on what we would consider an analog channel, there is space for two HD feeds and even an additional SD feed should Comcast choose to compress the signal a bit. For instance, the HD feeds for both KPIX and KTVU are carried on channel 78, while KBCW and KNTV are on 79. Contrast that with a possible 10 SD channels that can be placed in that same space. Comcast is stuck with this until the analog-to-digital switch is done and the old bandwidth is freed up. For them, the switch won't all happen next February as consumer concerns will draw out the transition another year or two.

As recently as yesterday I said that the best situation for the A's would be to team up with the Sharks on their own RSN. In light of the Warriors' frustration, perhaps they are a better partner. Consider that there's only a two-week overlap in regular season schedules between MLB and NBA, and the fact that both leagues' postseasons are carried exclusively on big national networks. They could easily work around any potential conflicts. They would need Comcast to get a taste in order to get Comcast to carry the channel. At least with a new RSN, it's a stable home and a chance to build a brand, as opposed to being just another part of the Bay Area sports menagerie. Obviously, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that the A's would be in more control over their own finances and advertising revenue.

Change is afoot. Hopefully we won't have to wait too long to see it.