By JOE SCALZO
The Big Ten Network’s battle with Armstrong Cable is a basic one.
And that’s the problem.
Three years after launching, the BTN has reached agreements with more than 300 cable and satellite providers in 95 percent of the Big Ten viewing area. All of them have put the network on their basic package.
Armstrong, which reaches much of Mahoning County, is one of the lone holdouts, which likely will generate plenty of grumbling Sept. 4 when the BTN broadcasts Youngstown State University’s opener at Penn State.
“We’re in Beijing, we’re in Frankfurt, and we’re in Chile,” said Big Ten Network president Mark Silverman. “We’re not in Youngstown. I think that’s a problem.”
The network is available locally on Time Warner (which serves much of Trumbull County), DirecTV and DISH Network. Armstrong is one of the 10 biggest cable providers in the Big Ten viewing area, Silverman said, reaching about 180,000 people.
“Am I optimistic we’ll have a deal for this season? No,” said David Wittmann, Armstrong’s vice president of cable marketing. “The No. 1 thing we’re told every day by our customers is that they want us to keep the price of basic cable low.
“We’re not closing our eyes to this issue but we’re trying to do the right thing for the vast majority of our customers.”
Armstrong has not added a channel to its basic cable service in seven years, yet the price has gone up from $46 to $54 in the past three years. Sports accounts for more than 40 percent of Armstrong’s programming costs, and the BTN would only add to that expense, Wittman said.
“Fundamentally, sports programming continues to escalate costs at a level that far exceeds the economy,” Wittman said. “It’s a real problem.”
Armstrong has offered to put the channel on its digital tier — something it’s done with similar channels such as the NFL Network, NHL Network and ESPNU — or make it a single-pay channel such as HBO.
Silverman said agreeing to Armstrong’s terms would cause the network’s agreements with other cable subscribers to fall apart.
“I’d love to be able to say we’re negotiating and we’re at the table, but we’re not,” Silverman said. “There’s no negotiating table anymore. We have 300 deals.
“The candy bar costs 50 cents. Either you want it or you don’t.”
Although both sides declined to discuss numbers, a recent story in the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star reported that the network receives 88 cents per subscriber in its eight-state footprint and five cents outside. That’s down from the BTN’s original demand three years ago of $1.10 per subscriber and is in line with the cost of most regional sports networks such as Fox Sports Ohio.
The NFL Network, by contrast, charges about 70 cents per subscriber and the MLB Network is about 25 cents. ESPN charges about $3 per subscriber.
BTN broadcasts between 350 and 400 live events each year, including about 100 men’s basketball games and 35-40 football games. Ohio State’s season opener against Marshall on Sept. 2 will also be on the network.
“Individual businesses make their own decisions, but at the end of the day, we want people to understand there are other options,” said Gene Smith, the Ohio State athletic director, referring to satellite providers such as DirecTV. “It’s important to get 100 percent coverage. We’re in 80 million homes. I want to be in 100 million.”
Silverman said he’s not optimistic a deal will get done anytime soon, especially after Armstrong declined to add the network last fall when Penn State’s first three football games were all on BTN. Armstrong’s biggest footprint is in Western Pennsylvania, including Mercer and Lawrence counties.
Pete Morabito of Austintown, who attended a BTN presentation at the MVR on Wednesday, said he’s e-mailed Armstrong with his frustration over not having the network and was told that, because Armstrong is a smaller company than Time Warner or Comcast, it can’t afford to cave to the BTN’s demands.
“I feel like we’re on an island,” Morabito said. “I’m not angry, I’m just frustrated. It’s getting to the point where I’m going to have to give [Armstrong] up.”
John Savage of Austintown said one of the reasons he’s sticking with Armstrong is he saves money by bundling his Internet and phone services.
“If I switch to satellite, my other costs go up,” he said. “If I leave, I lose.”
Both men said they sometimes go to bars to see the game but said it’s a hassle to watch outside of the home because they have to get there early, buy a meal and, if they choose to drink alcohol, find a ride home.
“It’s at the point now where I just put on my headphones and listen to the game,” Savage said. “It’s funny. I’ve got a high-definition TV setup, and I’m stuck listening to AM radio.”