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.

"The fairest way to bring the Network to our customers is to make it available on our Sports Entertainment Package," a Comcast spokesperson told ABCNEWS.com, "So that fans who want extra Big Ten content beyond what's already available on ABC, ESPN and CBS would be able to pay for the Big Ten Network, while the majority of our customers, who are not super fans, would not be burdened with these huge costs."

Time Warner echoes Comcast's reasoning: "We don't want to be forced to pass on the highly priced niche sports programming to the majority of our customers."

The cost the cable providers would be faced with, they say, would be as much as $1.10 per month, making Big Ten one of the more expensive networks, along with ESPN and TNT.

Big Ten Network President Mark Silverman told ABCNEWS.com that while the company is adamant it be included in a basic cable package in the eight states where local interest for these games is highest, its distribution provisions in the rest of the country are more flexible.

"Within the eight states where there is such a heightened appeal [for Big Ten athletics] the Big Ten Network should be in one of the Top 60 or 70 [expanded basic cable packages]," said Silverman. "The cable providers are the ones that make single people watch Nickelodeon and grandmothers watch MTV — it's a system that they developed."

The cable providers serve 65 percent of subscribers in the Big Ten region, Silverman added. Even so, the network has already reached 30 million homes in its first 30 days on the air. Proof, Silverman said, that the Big Ten Network can't be shut out for long.

"This network is an extension of these communities," said Silverman. "People who grow up in these areas grow up fans of the schools, and the athletic programs. It's part of the fiber of who these people are in the Big Ten."

"By trying to say the network is niche and has limited appeal I think it shows a severe misunderstanding of how important the schools and the networks are to each of these communities," said Silverman, who added it's likely a deal will be worked out in time for the big game this weekend.