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Wednesday, August 15, 2012
Pac-12 Networks fires up, but will it last?

By Kristi Dosh

The Pac-12 Networks launches at 6 p.m. Wednesday on the West Coast, becoming the third conference-affiliated cable channel to hit the air.

Success is not guaranteed -- the MountainWest Sports Network folded this year after six seasons. So will the Pac-12 Networks go the way of the Mountain West effort or end up like the Big Ten Network, which turned a profit in its second year?

Neither network is directly comparable to the Pac-12 Networks. For starters, the Pac-12 will be the first to launch regional channels to go along with its national channel, with six regionals that cover Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, Colorado and Utah.

The MountainWest Sports Network and Big Ten Network struggled with distribution at launch. The mtn., as it was informally called, launched to approximately 1 million households in September 2006 but was notably absent in the first year from the San Diego and Las Vegas markets, home to San Diego State and UNLV. And its placement on the cable dial did not please BYU and Utah fans, who had to give up the ability to see games for free on local stations and instead face a $45 cable package to see the games on The mtn.

Things began to look up for the Mountain West network in 2008, when it signed a deal with DirecTV. After Boise State was announced as an addition for the 2011 season, Comcast added The mtn. to lineups in a number of cities, including Greater Atlanta, Boston, Indianapolis, Detroit, Chicago, Nashville, Houston and Jacksonville, Fla. Those additions brought distribution up to 32 million households.

But fans continued to complain about production quality and the still-limited distribution. Some believed BCS voters couldn’t find the games on television and instead relied on box scores, putting conference teams at a disadvantage. BYU ran into issues when it thought it had rebroadcasting rights for its own network, BYUtv, but then didn’t.

It’s hard to say whether The mtn. could have ever overcome all the hurdles. After losing TCU, Utah, Boise State and SDSU to conference realignment and BYU to independence, the network announced it was signing off the air as of May 31. A former director of licensing at a Mountain West institution said there was a clause in The mtn.’s contract that if BYU and Utah ever left the conference, the deal was over.

The Big Ten Network launched in a partnership with Fox in 17-18 million households, but like The mtn. struggled to reach all of the fans within its footprint. It did reach 30 million households in its first 30 days, signing a deal with Dish Network after the network’s first game featured Appalachian State beating No. 5-ranked Michigan.

Yet the Big Ten Network remained in a stalemate with Comcast, a cable operator with 5.7 million customers in Big Ten states and the provider on the University of Minnesota campus, through most of its first year. When Wisconsin played at Ohio State in November 2007, more than 40 percent of the homes in Columbus were unable to watch the game, because the network had yet to strike a deal with Time Warner.

Nearly one year after its launch, the Big Ten Network finally came to terms with Comcast, and other major carriers like Time Warner followed. By 2009, the Big Ten Network had full distribution within its footprint and was profitable. It is now available in 80 million households on the 10 largest cable, satellite and telco providers.

Pac-12 Networks will launch Wednesday night on several of the nation’s largest cable providers: Comcast, Time Warner, Cox and BrightHouse. Those deals were in place a full year prior to launch, a credit to the premium games the conference held back from its TV deal with ESPN and Fox, which allows the Pac-12 Networks to have the first or second picks of games in some weeks of the football season. However, Pac-12 Networks are still working to get on DirecTV, Dish Network, Verizon and AT&T.

Cable analysts expect the Pac-12 Networks to be comparable to the Big Ten Network in terms of profit within a few years, but the Pac-12 will have the benefit of not sharing any of that profit with a partner.