Bill aims to mediate cable conflict

By Jonathan Jacobson

When Jeff Woss turned on his television a few weeks ago to watch the Illini play, he found himself hopelessly channel surfing.

Woss, junior in Engineering, said that he heard the Big Ten Network, a national sports channel that carries conference games which don’t end up on major networks, was about to debut in Champaign-Urbana. He heard wrong.

“Finally the launch date approached, and I couldn’t find what channel it was on,” Woss said in an e-mail.

The Big Ten Network, based in Chicago and co-owned by the member institutions of the Big Ten and Fox Sports Network, has been at an impasse for months in negotiations with Comcast, the nation’s largest cable operator, which will be replacing Insight in Champaign-Urbana starting in January.

Among the eight Big Ten states, Comcast has about five million cable subscribers.

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The cable operator is willing to offer the network to its subscribers, but would place it on a sports tier that would cost consumers an extra $6.99 each month. The network, however, wants to be included on expanded basic cable at no extra cost, the same arrangement some Comcast-owned sports networks have received.

With negotiations at a complete standstill, some Illinois state senators have decided to step in to resolve the conflict.

On Monday, state Sen. Dale Risinger, R-Peoria, introduced a bill that would create an independent arbiter to deal with situations in which cable company-owned programming competes with independent programming.

The bill, which Risinger admitted doesn’t have the kind of widespread support he would like, is called the Fair Access and Independent Resolution Act, or FAIR.

Risinger said he blames the standoff on a lack of diversification in media control. In fact, 65 percent of the cable market in the eight Big Ten states are under the thumbs of four companies: Comcast, Time Warner, Charter and Mediacom.

“Right now, we don’t have that same level of competition and because of that, the government can poke its holes in,” Risinger said.

Comcast spokesman Rich Ruggiero said that there is no need for the government to get involved in the dispute.

“Direct private negotiation,” he said, has produced “hundreds of agreements with programs and channels. We think that’s a system that has worked extremely well.”

He cited the NFL Network, which is available as part of Comcast’s sports tier, as one of the company’s success stories.

But recently, outspoken NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has called for subscribers to cancel their Comcast subscriptions and sign up for satellite dish networks like DirecTV, which don’t charge extra for some sports networks.

Ruggiero said that Comcast is only picking up the scraps that major networks like ABC and ESPN choose not to air.

“You’ve got at least half the year without major football or basketball coverage at all,” Ruggiero said. “For the superfan who wants that coverage, the sports package is the best way to get it.”

Big Ten Network CEO Mark Silverman, though, said his programming is not just for superfans.

Silverman said the network has lined up 30 million subscribers through deals with 157 cable operators and has no intention of stepping down. It is available on every Big Ten campus except Champaign-Urbana and the Twin Cities in Minnesota,

“We’ve proven the desire and the ability to get deals done,” he said.

It is in the consumer’s best interest to keep the network on expanded basic cable, Silverman said, calling the negotiation process “infuriating.”

“Their sports tier is just the networks that (the cable companies) don’t own that they want to make more money from,” he said. “That’s what they should call it, because that’s what it is.”

The forgotten element in these negotiations, though, is the average fan, said Illini Pride President Rachel Blonski.

“Sometimes you just want to watch a football game in your apartment, and you can’t because you have to go to a bar on campus,” Blonski said.

This past weekend, she said, bars starting carding especially hard during the football game, leaving underage students with nowhere to watch their team.

Woss, the hopeless channel-surfer, said that both sides should accept some of the blame.

“In the end, what really matters is that I can’t watch the Illini play even though I live in Urbana,” he said.

Staff writer Jeff LaBelle contributed to this report