Big Ten Network Celebrates Anniversary of Launch
Aug. 29, 2008
by Jeff Smith
One year ago Saturday, the manner in which the nation viewed the Big Ten Conference and its 11 institutions changed forever. The Big Ten Network was a novel idea. It was to be a conference-owned national television network devoted solely to covering the league's 11 schools, both athletically and academically, and doing so in a 24/7/365 manner primarily broadcasted in high definition. The 20-year partnership with FOX Cable Networks was initially announced in June of 2006, but it was one year ago on the near north side of Chicago, when Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany and the conference he serves saw this vision become the real thing. A national television network created by the Big Ten, for the Big Ten, and its four million alumni nationwide.
Looking back on the Big Ten Network's first year, Delany and BTN President Mark Silverman are pleased with the success of the network, saying it was a highly effective mix between quality production and a quality product. Few would disagree. The innovative approach FOX and the Big Ten Network took this year gave millions of fans a more exclusive and in-depth look into the conference and their favorite teams. And now one year later, Delany and Silverman have reached their primary goal of full distribution throughout Big Ten Country. As we take a look back on the first year, both Delany and Silverman touch on several topics regarding the Big Ten Network, including distribution, programming, news coverage and recruiting to name a few.
Now with the recent additions of powerhouse providers Comcast, Time Warner, Charter and Mediacom, Delany estimates the Big Ten Network is reaching 95 out of 100 homes within the conference's eight-state region, while Silverman states the network is now available in 75 million homes nationwide. Several of those deals were made, or at least agreed to in principle, in the two weeks leading up to Saturday's season-openers in football. Delany's and Silverman's stance from the onset was to have the BTN carried on an expanded basic service throughout the Big Ten region. That was their top priority and they have fulfilled that within the network's first year.
"As of the last 48 hours, distribution has become less of an issue," Silverman said on Wednesday. "We are thrilled that is now behind us and we can solely focus on putting a great product on the air."
Delany admitted the distribution was a struggle, but also pointed out the significant progress the BTN made in that area in its first year.
"We were at 17 million (homes) August 30th and then were in 30 million after our first 30 days," he said. "We added Comcast on August 15 and most recently Time Warner, Charter and Mediacom. We were hopeful that at this first anniversary we would have achieved all of our distribution goals, and I think there is no other way to describe where we are at now than as a complete success."
PARTNERSHIP WITH FOX
As for FOX's reaction to the BTN turning one?
"All the words I have heard from FOX is that they are proud of the network," Silverman said. "It's a joint venture that is fully branded, and FOX understands we are branding the conference on the air, but using their innovative technology and high-quality production in doing so. FOX has also been able to learn from things we are doing so they can utilize on their other networks."
Delany points to the National Football League's situation with its NFL Network and notes how difficult it can be to run a network without a strong television partner.
"The NFL is having a tough time doing it by themselves right now and I know we couldn't have done this by ourselves," he said. "You need the ability to be steady in choppy waters. In my view, this is not doable without a great strategic partner, and that how I would describe FOX."
PROGRAMMING & PRODUCTION
Branding was perhaps the major point of emphasis when Delany set out on this venture. The Big Ten was established in 1896 and has one of the strongest brands in all of college athletics. So if the conference was to be promoted to a national audience through this innovative medium, Delany knew that the content and how that content was transmitted was extremely important to the success of the network.
"(The BTN) gives us an opportunity to present our teams, coaches and student-athletes in a unique way, but it gives us another opportunity to explore our universities through non-athletic programming," said Delany, who also noted the BTN ran close to 30,000 institutional public service announcements in year one. "Our on-campus studios allow these institutions in real time to bring stories and student-athletes to our fan base. Our studio shows allow for an exclusive focus on highlights of Big Ten action and archived materials. All of these elements will become even more powerful and help reinforce and actualize the branding rationale that was so important to our thought process to move in this direction."
Silverman touted the quality of the Big Ten's competitive product this past season and was pleased with how it was transmitted over air.
"We did a lot of investing in dollars to bring quality people behind the cameras to represent the conference well," he said. "Each school had an average of 80 contests this past year and over 90 percent of what we aired was in HD. Every school presented us with campus programming and we were thrilled to broadcast the events that had never before been on air."
When asked about their favorite BTN programming of the past season, Delany and Silverman gave uniquely different views. The 20-year commissioner enjoyed all that was new, while the first-year president favored reliving the past.
"I thought the efforts to capture the campus activities through `Friday Night Tailgate' was done well and 'The Journey' on Minnesota basketball was a good documentary," said Delany.
For Silverman, who went to grad school at Michigan, revisiting those memories through the BTN's "Greatest Games" was his favorite programming of the past year.
"I love going back in time and watching some of those games because it brings you back in time to what your life was like, and what you were doing, and who you watched it with," he said. "You get transformed back to these moments and I think (that programming) has brought a lot of similes to people's faces. It is an element that has succeeded more than we ever would have thought."
TALENT & NEWS COVERAGE
"I think it's really important," he said. "If you played in this conference, you understand what this network is all about. If you played here, you can report it more intelligently. It's more than just a game here, it's a way of life."
When dissecting the BTN's primary broadcast talent this past year, it's tough to argue Silverman's point. The network's lead football studio team of Dave Revsine, Gerry DiNardo and Howard Griffith are all Big Ten representatives. Revsine is a graduate of Northwestern, Dinardo used to coach football at Indiana, and Griffith was a former Illinois running back and two-time Super Bowl champion. When it came time for the men's basketball season, former Purdue head coach Gene Keady, Ohio State great Jim Jackson and recent Northwestern basketball graduate Tim Doyle joined the team. On the women's side, former Indiana assistant Vera Jones and Purdue All-American and Big Ten Player of the Year Stephanie White added their commentary.
Just this past week, the BTN announced its expanded football broadcast team for the 2008 season, which includes former Northwestern defensive back Chris Martin and former Minnesota head coach Glen Mason, both of whom return for a second season. Joining the BTN family this season will be former Purdue offensive lineman Ian Allen, former Iowa defensive lineman Anthony Herron, legendary Penn State wide receiver Kenny Jackson, and former Michigan tight end Tony McGee.
Delany points out that with the nation's largest alumni base and with institutions located in states that make up a quarter of the country's population, the Big Ten should be able to attract the best in sports broadcasting.
"Many of our former players and coaches are working in the media, and we should be able to pull quality people from that pool," he said. "We have also hired some talent who have established themselves this past year and I think that's been remarkable."
Without question one of the perks of this past season was the BTN's lead football broadcast crew of play-by-play man Thom Brennaman, analyst Charles Davis and sideline reporter Charissa Thompson. Brennaman and Davis led FOX Sports' coverage of the Bowl Championship Series the past two years, including this past season's national championship game with Ohio State.
But what no one was prepared for, including Brennaman, Davis, and the BTN, was the season-opening game in Ann Arbor last year. Not only did the Michigan-Appalachian State contest make history as the first live football game aired on the BTN, but the Mountaineers' stunning 34-32 upset over the fifth-ranked Wolverines would go down as Brennaman called it live, "one of the greatest upsets in sports history."
All of the sudden, fans across the nation were not only scrambling to watch the replays, but were tuning in to the BTN to see how the network would cover the loss.
"The Michigan game was one of the biggest upsets in college football history," Silverman said. "We reported it; we had it on our air. These are big events and you have to be credible to cover these events."
The BTN was also tested later in the year with the news of NCAA sanctions involving the Indiana men's basketball program, which ultimately led to the dismissal of head coach Kelvin Sampson, and many feel the resignation of athletic director Rick Greenspan.
Delany and Silverman lauded the BTN's efforts in how the network covered the issue, although both expressed disappointment with the approach of other networks.
"I think the network accurately reported the Sampson story, but it did not make it a game story," Delany said. "You have to recognize the responsibility you have to report the news to the fans, but the game is a game, and you don't want to turn that into `60 Minutes.' They hit a good balance between journalism and letting the game be the game in their coverage of that story."
Silverman agrees: "The network treated (Michigan football and Indiana basketball) with the appropriate amount of coverage and discipline. I think other networks went completely overboard on the basketball situation. We covered what it was. We're going to report what is happening, but in no way are we going to sensationalize it either."
"That's what separates us," Silverman said. "That's what makes us unique."
When asked about the effect on recruiting for a high-profiled sport such as football, Delany and Silverman both pointed out the BTN's year-round coverage of the sport. The network began with the 2007 season, covered the bowl games, moved to the offseason, National Signing Day, in-depth spring game broadcasts, and produced on-location 90-minute editions of Big Ten Tonight at fall practice.
"By having a brand in our name, people know what they are going to find here," Silverman said. "Other networks will do a MAC game, then an SEC game and then an ACC game, but that's exposure. It's not a brand. Here you always know it's going to be about these 11 schools. I don't think it's a close comparison to what other conferences have."
Added Delany: "It's total immersion here. It's 24/7/365."
ADVERTISING & SPONSORS
"These sponsors are realizing they have a unique opportunity to attach their product to one of the premier brands in all of sports," he said. "That's something that other general sport networks can't provide."
The BTN has also maintained its stance that no alcohol advertising will be permitted on air. This past year we have seen a growing public debate among college presidents and chancellors as to whether the legal drinking age should be lowered from 21 to 18. We have also seen the NCAA struggle with keeping alcohol advertising to its self-imposed limit of 120 seconds during the men's basketball tournament on CBS. The Center for Science in the Public Interest counted 270 seconds of alcohol ads during the 2008 championship final.
"First thing I would say is alcohol abuse is maybe the number one social problem on our campuses today," Delany said. "The second thing is that I think our position on the network speaks for itself. It's an owned network and it's where we want to be. I wouldn't attempt to say our position should be the position of everyone else. Ours works for us in the context of having an owned network."
"A BRAND IN A NEW SETTING"
"People were lined up around the streets in Baltimore in 1997 when we opened our first (ESPN Zone)," he said. "They were able to experience that brand in a new setting and that is what we are doing here. We are taking the Big Ten brand and strengthening it in a new 24/7/365 television network setting."
While proud of his ventures with Walt Disney and ABC, Silverman says his first year as president of the Big Ten Network has already exceeded his expectations.
"This has been far and away, the most challenging, rewarding and fulfilling role that I have had," he said. "The challenges are significant, but the rewards are off the charts."
Here's to the Big Ten Network. One year down and many more to go.
Year two kicks off Saturday.