Cable Dispute Blacks Out Football Fans

Whatever you do, don't get in the way of college football fanatics, arguably among the most ardent athletic supporters on the planet.

Three major cable companies and the Big Ten Network — a new channel dedicated to all things Big Ten — learned this the hard way, enraging Big Ten fans by failing to strike an agreement on how the network is distributed to consumers.

As a result, the Big Ten Network won't reach 65 percent of cable subscribers throughout the eight states that house Big Ten universities, making it difficult for fans to cheer on their respective teams.

"I'm really pissed off," said Jeff Fishbach, a Milwaukee resident who said he's been a University of Wisconsin Badger fan since birth. "As a Wisconsin alumnus, as well as one of the biggest Badger fans, I feel like it is my right to see Badger games."

This week, some of the angriest fans, like Fishbach, are struggling to figure out a way to watch the much anticipated match-up against the top-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes, which will only be aired on the Big Ten Network.

While 15 smaller cable providers in Wisconsin have worked out deals to carry the Big Ten Network, two major carriers — Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications — have yet to strike a deal and don't offer the network. Badger fans will have to go to bars or friend's places with satellite TV.

"I'd rather sit at home with my friends and not in a bar with smoke," said Fishbach, who listened to last weekend's game on the radio. "I have no choice [if I want to watch the game on television] but to go to a bar, and then pay more money for drinks and food."

And it's not just Badger fans who are reeling from the unavailability of many Big Ten games. Each Big Ten university is required under contract to have at least one of their conference football games on the network, and most will air more than that. Basketball from the same schools will be carried on the network when that season opens.

"I'm two hours away from where [Illinois] is playing and I can't even watch my own team play," said Stacey Hultgren, a recent graduate of the University of Illinois who said that even finding a bar that airs the game is difficult. "It's ridiculous."

Kick Off: Network vs. Cable Companies

The network's concept is to provide unprecedented coverage of the Big Ten schools — not only airing sporting events but also programming about the academic achievements of the various institutions. The universities, who profit from the exposure the network gives their schools, are pleased that they won't have to hope to make the cut on more mainstream sports coverage, like ESPN's "SportsCenter." Instead, the Big Ten Network will be an outlet reserved solely for them.

At the center of the debate between the Big Ten Network and the companies still not carrying it — which include also include Comcast — is a dispute over how much a cable subscriber should have to pay to view the network.

Big Ten wants to be offered as a part of the cable providers' expanded basic cable, the same package that offers stations like MTV, ESPN and Nickelodeon. Cable providers want Big Ten as a part of a sports tier package, which often includes ESPN U, the Tennis Channel and NBA TV.

Cable execs argue that the majority of their consumers don't want to watch a channel that broadcasts nothing but Big Ten programming, and those who do can opt to pay extra, must like subscribers of movie channels like HBO.

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