23 October 2008

A's leaving KICU?

Towards the end of Susan Slusser's Chronicle article about the A's hiring Mike Gallego as third base coach is a blurb about the A's opting out of their current deal with KICU. This appears to be another step towards the rumored deal with Comcast SportsNet California (formerly CSN West). KICU had been broadcasting A's game for over a decade, and while the team is leaving the door open to returning to KICU, the writing's on the wall.

In 2008, 45 games were on the KICU part of the schedule, supplemented by 66 on CSNBA. All signs point to an exclusive deal with CSNCA, which will hopefully lead to at least 140 games, perhaps 150. No, that's not the complete schedule, but it creates allowances for national broadcasts (Fox, ESPN, TBS, and the fledgling MLB Network). Depending on how the CSNCA deal is done, the A's may have more control over advertising revenue.

The unspoken rationale for such a move is the digital TV transition, which is scheduled to occur next February 17. As it stands, only 6% of the Bay Area audience watches analog TV only via an antenna. The rest watch primarily through cable, satellite, or broadband connections. That 6% is almost guaranteed to drop once the digital switch occurs. The FCC's traveling band of commissioners visited Oakland last month to educate and survey area residents. The live demo didn't exactly go smoothly.

Many over-the-air viewers will get fewer channels due to their locations, which brings up two issues. The Bay Area is pretty well spread out thanks to some big body of water in the middle, and here OTA transmissions start to peter out after a few dozen miles. That means if you're in San Jose and want to watch a digital World Series broadcast from KTVU, you'll have trouble unless you use a well-powered outdoor antenna that is properly aimed at San Francisco. Ironically, some residents in the various valley neighborhoods of SF have complained of not being able to get OTA digital reception even though they geographically in the transmitter's backyard.

KICU, which has long been a San Jose-based station, moved their transmitter a few years back from Loma Prieta to Monument Peak near the Milpitas-Fremont border. It's not a terrible location, but there have been complaints from North Bay A's fans about the signal. Moreover, the A's and KICU chose not to do HD broadcasts due to cost. That won't be such an issue on a regional sports network. With uncertainty about OTA digital coverage on the horizon, it's not hard to see why the A's might look at something more predictable.

The flipside of a change to CSNCA is CSNCA's own carriage. CSNBA has a long legacy of being carried on local cable systems, going back to its days as Fox Sports Net Bay Area and previously SportsChannel Bay Area. That, and the broadcasts of both baseball teams, Warriors, Sharks, and Pac-10 sports, made carriage of CSNBA throughout Northern California/Nevada and Southern Oregon a no-brainer. On the other hand, CSNCA is a relative newcomer. CSNCA only has the Kings right now, and they're blacked out in the Bay Area. CSNCA has struggled to get carried on non-Comcast cable systems throughout Northern California. While inking the A's would make CSNCA a more compelling channel, having the A's would also boost the channel's subscriber fee, especially if the channel were on basic cable as the A's are requesting.

Follow-up: ars technica has an article this week citing a survey by ABI Research. According to the survey, 20% of antenna-only viewers will cease to watch TV altogether. Additionally:
70 percent of the surveyed TV watchers plan to hook a digital converter box up to their over the air antennas, while another 10 percent plan to switch over to cable or satellite pay-TV. According to analyst Steve Wilson, though, the rest of the current over the air households will simply stop watching traditional television altogether.
That translates to only 3% of American viewers that will stop watching TV come February. That's not a bad percentage considering the kind of upheaval the transition is being hyped to be.