Comcast, Big Ten close on broadcast deal

Posted: June 16, 2008

Comcast Corp. and the Big Ten Network are very close to a deal that would make the 24-hour college-sports programming available in the eight states with Big Ten schools, including Pennsylvania, sources close to the negotiations say.

Comcast, the nation's largest cable company, would provide the Big Ten programming on a preview basis on its main channel package, then reposition the network to its more expensive digital tier next spring, after the football and basketball seasons, the sources say.

Customers with enhanced basic service would have to upgrade to digital when the preview ends to keep the Big Ten Network.

In the Philadelphia area, Comcast will skip the preview and carry the Big Ten Network right away on the digital tier, sources said.

Controversy over the Big Ten games on cable was not as charged in the Philadelphia region as it was in Ohio, Michigan and Illinois because this region is considered a "professional-sports town" with a closer affiliation to the Big East Conference than the Big Ten, sources said.

The result of the pending deal: Philadelphia-area college-sports fans who subscribe to Comcast digital service will not miss a televised Penn State football game if a deal is signed by August, which looks likely. Pennsylvania State University is in the Big Ten.

The deal would add about five million subscribers to the Chicago-based college-sports network, with the potential for more throughout the nation. The Big Ten Network could be available in other states on a digital tier, or an extra-charge sports package. The sports package costs an additional $5 a month.

The Big Ten Network, which is jointly owned by the Big Ten schools and by News Corp.'s Fox network, was seeking a place on Comcast's national cable system of 24 million pay-TV customers for its huge subscriber base and advertising potential.

According to the Big Ten Network, a Comcast deal places the college-sports channel on two-thirds of the 18 million households with cable TV or satellite service in the eight Big Ten states.

Comcast and Big Ten - which ran advertisements critical of each other last fall - compromised in their negotiations. The per-subscriber fee to the Big Ten Network is about 70 cents per customer, sources say. Comcast had said that the Big Ten Network first asked for $1.10 per subscriber. Comcast said last fall that the network belonged on the extra-cost all-sports programming package because it did not have broad appeal for viewers.

Comcast also will have rights to Big Ten content for its video-on-demand service and for its Web site, Comcast.net, as part of the deal under discussion.

Some believe that other college conferences will attempt to organize 24-hour sports channels if the Big Ten Network succeeds. Comcast has said it has talked with the Southeastern Conference about a sports network, a company official said.

Big Ten Network spokeswoman Elizabeth Conlisk said today the network "remains close to reaching a deal with Comcast."

A deal is not signed, she said.


Contact staff writer Bob Fernandez at 215-854-5897 or bob.fernandez@phillynews.com.

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