SEC Network intent on becoming power player

sports@macon.comMay 4, 2013 

While the Big Ten came up with the road map to TV success, the SEC will do things its own way as it emerges as a cable TV power player

ATLANTA -- Bret Bielema used to ooze Big Ten. Raised in Illinois, played at Iowa, grew from upstart coordinator to flourishing head coach for Wisconsin.

In a surprise move betraying his roots, Bielema was lured to Arkansas by the temptation of hopping aboard the “Golden Age of the SEC,” as conference commissioner Mike Slive proudly christened this era Thursday.

There’s a not-so-veiled swagger about Bielema, fitting in perfectly with his new conference.

“The SEC is its own animal, its own identity, its own unique situation,” Bielema said. “It’s fun to be a part of it and be on the inside now to see the view.”

Bielema will carry a one-of-a-kind perspective into the newest dawn of the SEC, which on Thursday, hand-in-hand with ESPN, announced the creation of a 24/7 network dedicated to its members launching in August 2014.

He’s a prior witness to a conference-centric network facing obstacles on the road to glory.

First in line

This is not an innovative endeavor. Other conferences have realized moderate success (Pac-12) or abrupt shutdown (Mountain West), but the clearest example of a blockbuster is the Big Ten Network, off the ground in August 2007 and now in 52 million homes -- including more than 50 percent outside the Big Ten’s nine-state region.

“It’s very rewarding to see how far we’ve come,” BTN president Mark Silverman said in an August interview. “Our network was met with more than a healthy dose of skepticism.”

BTN wasn’t profitable until its second season on the air, and the network tortured its fan base when it wasn’t widely available on major distributors during a 2007-08 standstill. To this day, it’s still not available on Cox Communications’ system in Macon and Warner Robins.

For that first year, major cable and satellite companies insisted on sticking BTN on a sports tier, forcing customers to pay extra fees. Silverman balked. Fans revolted.

“It was, to date, still the most difficult time of my professional career,” said Silverman, a former executive with ABC, NBC and Walt Disney. “We never expected full distribution at launch -- that just doesn’t happen in the industry -- but we also didn’t expect it to get as heated and as public as it got.”

That’s the cautionary tale for SEC ESPN Network creators, who today take comfort in the extended deadline to seal a deal with Comcast, Time Warner, DISH Network and DirecTV -- who combine for 68 million viewers. (AT&T U-verse, the first company to agree with SEC Network, has 4.5 million subscribers.)

“Look, we have 16 months to have those conversations in advance of launching the network,” said former ESPN senior vice president Justin Connolly, who will handle SEC Network day-to-day operations. “We feel good about the opportunities that exist on that horizon, and we’re literally just getting into those discussions right now.”

Hell hath no fury like a scorned fan who can’t watch his or her team’s game. The SEC might be wise to take heed from that conference up north.

“I think that anytime you take on a venture in anything that’s similar to it, you can learn from it,” Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs conceded. “So I think we learn the good and the bad from … other conferences, what they’ve done, what they’re going to accomplish. Maybe some things, you learn what not to do.”

ESPN president John Skipper was quick to point out ESPN negotiates license fees and other transactions with distributors, not consumers. That’s why organizers are urging fans to visit GetSECNetwork.com, hoping to strike a compromise with Comcast, DirecTV, etc. and avoid egg on their face the way Big Ten Network faced five years ago.

“We feel like the network will be priced efficiently and effectively,” said a confident Connolly.

Maybe the partnership of powers prevails easier than expected. An SEC release read Thursday, “This collaboration between the SEC and ESPN will bring together unparalleled content from one of the most competitive conferences in the country with the highest quality, most innovative production partner in the sports industry.”’

Translation: It’s the SEC, it’s ESPN, so how could this not work?

“The thing that was our single biggest hurdle to get over when we started off,” Bielema said of BTN, “I think that glitch has already been eradicated (by the SEC).”

Access approved

Nick Saban’s no stranger to attention; that’s the territory with winning three national championships in four years.

With an in-house network, however, follows additional, constant demands for access -- everything from exclusive interviews to cameras in the locker room.

“I think the time that we have to spend on media-related promotion ... can’t be increased because we have other things that are important to do,” Saban said. “I think the time may get redistributed -- but our players need to go to class, our players need to practice and prepare for games and be able to do those things without interruption.”

Bielema recalls “the domino effect” of more commitments to BTN, as well as the immediate benefits.

“Now you’re talking to a young man, he’s like, ‘oh yeah, I’ve been watching you for years,’ ” Bielema said. “Before you ever met him or talked to him, he knew a lot about you and your program. So I think that’s the part that you can’t even really project or fathom until it’s real.”

Still, for sticklers to detail like Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, it’s a challenge to confront.

“It’s all about balance,” Malzahn said. “You take care of your job first, and you put your schedule up where you can be very flexible and accommodate everyone.”

Call it like they see it?

Then there’s the question of objectivity. It’s a question BTN faces, as it insists on expressing its own voice.

“The network needs to have credibility as a news organization,” Big Ten senior associate commissioner of television administration Mark Rudner said in August. “I think the network has done a really good job on reporting news ... they’re not taking direction from the conference office. They’re just not.”

Will the SEC Network advocate hard-hitting journalism, pump sunshine, or somewhere in the middle?

“They ought to be able to say whatever they believe,” Auburn president Jay Gogue said. “So I wouldn’t view us as in any way involved in controlling content.”

The network spearhead’s judgment is worthy, but it does conflict with what’s written in a network release Thursday: “The Network will cover and report on sports news and information in an objective manner, but the basic premise is the Network will represent the conference and its member institutions.”

In other words, say a football team loses four straight or a program is slammed with NCAA violations. Fans will quickly find out whether studio analysts employed by SEC Network have free reign to speak their mind.

Confident crew

The Wall Street Journal has reported ESPN will own 100 percent of SEC Network -- which Slive coyly disputed on Birmingham radio Friday.

“We have structured our relations in a way that’s really in the best interests of both of us … we’re both happy,” Slive said at Thursday’s announcement. “We will not at this particular time, and I don’t anticipate in the near future, detail our financials.

“I will say this: we wouldn’t have done this if we didn’t believe the network was going to be, in the long-term, a benefit of the league in terms of distribution and revenue.”

With more than a year to prepare, SEC Network’s still ironing out how to fill out the never-ending news cycle, since live games only take up so much air time.

“We’ve been concentrating on the types of stories from an academic perspective,” Gogue said, “that we would like to see occur the next few years or after the launch of the channel.”

According to Connolly, ESPN will oversee the SEC’s official corporate partner program and manage the league’s digital platforms.

BTN has developed a devoted following for Emmy-winning documentary “The Journey: Big Ten Basketball”, Big Ten Elite, BTN LiveBig and Football Preview Tour, among other original content.

“We’re quite confident this is a new and unique opportunity, and that nothing like this has been done before,” Skipper said. “The level of distribution we’ll have at the beginning, the quality of the production, the amount of the games that we’ll have, the sort of integration with digital platforms, this is taking this to a whole new level.”

For as much power as Big Ten Network lent Bielema and his yesteryear counterparts, one thing was evident in his comments about BTN -- following the trend with Gogue, Jacobs, Slive and Skipper.

All of them sidestepped mentioning the Big Ten, Big Ten Network or any other conference directly by name.

That’s the “S-E-C!” way. That’s the SEC’s mission.

“I don’t think our intention,” Skipper said, “is to compare this to anything else.”

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