Here are some answers to the frequently asked questions about The Tennis Channel:
Posted 10/05/2006 @ 7 :25 PM
Okay, this isn't the sexiest of blogging subjects, but it matters to a lot of us, so here comes the skinny on The Tennis Channel, straight from the mouth of Randy Brown, the network's head of distribution. Before we cut to the chase on the specific questions you posted, here's some relevant background.
According to Brown, TTC has agreements with cable providers to 9 of the Top 10 markets (Chicago is the exception) in the nation, and 16 of the Top 20. TTC is in, among other place, Anchorage Ala. (all those tennis loving moose hunters , you know!), Topeka, Kansas (so many prairie dogs, so little tennis on network TV!), and Green Bay Wisconsin (Brett who?) - all of which is cold comfort to, oh, Lorraine, Ruth, and others who post here regularly. Just say the words "Cablevision and or Comcast" and they go, Grrrrrrrrr. . . Or, for that matter, say DirecTV to any of, oh, 70 million people to get the same response.
Randy's reply to this, in part, was, "We don't view ourselves as being attractive just to warm-weather markets; the big thing is that the idea of a nationwide 24/7 tennis network is now validated. Somebody has to be the last to the party. It could be DirecTV."
Okay, that's a little - a lot - of corpspeak, but the conversation definitely improved from there. The bottom line on DirecTV is that TTC is still in talks with the outfit, and Randy said that relations are amicable. According to him, the main reason you don't get TTC bundled in one of the sports packages is bandwidth. That is, the DTV satellites can only handle so much of a load, and right now all the channels are filled. Real-world translation: no room at the inn. (translation of real-world translation: DTV doesn't feel TTC is important enough to include in a limited package).
Of course, this assumes that the 173 golf channels on TV all deserve, or have earned, a sliver of the bandwidth - and that's a debatable proposition at best. At any rate, Brown said that the situation has nothing to do with rates - the revenue that the networks return to the channels that they host. It works like this:a cable or dish provider offers a package - say, $4.95 per month for an array of sports channels. Then the provider returns a negotiated rate to each channel. Popular channels like NFL-related ones could draw a return of 70 cents to a buck per customer, while an NBA-related channel may get 20 cents.
Brown says TTC is a great deal for providers, rate-wise (the return is around 15 cents per subscriber), which is why having acquired the rights to Roland Garros could have big repercussions for TTC. It's a serious selling point when it comes to convincing recalcitrant providers. "Next year, things will probably improve," Brown said. "DirecTV is launching some new satellites,and that will add to their bandwidth." In fact, Brown believes that DTV will offer TTC channel sometime by the end of next year (2007).
Note a few things, though: Phone companies (Verizon among them) are increasingly positioning themselves as cable operators, and they're starting to roll out television packages of their own. And anyone in the country can get TTC via satellite if they change providers to Dish Network - which is generally considered an also-ran to DTV. What's the solution for a tennis nut? "Well," Brown said, "You could put two dishes on your roof."
Great. And then you can also be mistaken for CIA listening post!
So let's move on to the specifics:
Lorraine: CableVision is the culprit in Connecticut, and it's the only provider in the Top 10 markets to deny you TTC. It appears that the outfit just isn't convinced there's enough interest, given its own bandwidth limitations. Having acquired rights to Roland Garros certainly will help in those on-going negotiations. The pitch TTC makes to Cablevision is: "We promised we would be able to deliver broadcast rights to no fewer than 18 tournaments, and we're now delivering 60-plus, including Roland Garros. Where are you guys?"
Dan: TTC is getting into video on demand, a particularly good format for delivering archival material and recreation-based material, like instruction. But TTC doesn't foresee doing tournaments on a VD platform, especially not over the Internet. The problem here is (partly) that doing so would violate the deals they have with cable providers. One thing TTC will be able to do, though, is broadcast a live match from, say, Roland Garros's Court Centrale, and simultaneously send streaming video to your computer from outside courts.
So, theoretically, you could be watching RG on your television and your computer, at the same time. Bandwidth is a big issue here, though. Picture quality is very dicey on all but the most high-tech of systems (theirs and yours) that stream video, especially when it comes to beaming live action. TTC is already doing webcasts at its website, but that's an entirely different beast.
On the issue of Comcast charging you for something they got from TTC for free, Brown said: "It's common practice for new networks to provide content for free for a certain trial period. But it will not be free in the long run."
As for High Definition: TTC has no plans to broad cast in Hi Def for the moment, as it's very expensive (Brown estimated the additional cost as between 30 and 40K per match). TTC sees no way to recoup that investment.
Tim: Don't look for a quantum leap in the amount or quality of the programming. However, as the network exercises its broadcast options to more and more of the 60-plus tournaments, you'll be getting more live (and, presumably, re-broadcast) tennis and, therefore, fewer repeats of old shows, like TTC's hardest working show, the Rafael Nadal No Strings segment. . .
Chloe02: Apparently, while all the technology is in place for serious, streaming video over the Internet, TTC's focus presently is on television and they have their hands full with that. Also, there is no real workable model for a 24/7 Internet operation delivering live content the way a cable broadcaster does. One other huge impediment: very few homes really have the capacity to take advantage of the high-tech options (read, slow computers).
Sanja: Dude, you, like, already have TTC (Time-Warner is your provider, right?).
Momofan: A la carte is a nice idea, but there are two ways to go in cable: be a "premium" offering, like HBO, or be part of a basic package, one level up (or down, depending on how you look at it) from what is bare-bones cable (CNN, Fox, Weather Channel, etc.) Another problem with a la carte is that you surrender the ability to lure in new viewers who stumble across you while channel-surfing.
Sharon: On broadcasting WTA vs. ATP events late in the season, Brown says expense doesn't factor into it. Other factors, including logistics (where are the camera crews and where can they be next week), count for a lot.
Here's something interesting: Brown told me that the ATP and WTA are not like the NFL; getting rights to their product is not a big financial burden. In fact, most events, even some very strong ones, love the idea of getting the kind of national and even international exposure represented by a deal with TTC (The U.S. Open, BTW, has a similar attitude; there's no comparison between what CBS or USA pay for rights compared to the fee charged overseas broadcasters). This is good news.
Vijay: Brown says the problem with streaming video into Chicago (to get around the indifference of the cable provider) right now is that doing so would pretty much assure that TTC will never, ever be launched there by the fence-sitting cable provider.
Creig: In order to submit programming ideas, go to the FAQ section of the TTC website and look for the question: How do I submit programming concepts? You'll then need to request a submission agreement form by mail to the TTC offices at:
2850 Ocean Park Blvd.
Los Angeles, Ca., 90405 - attn: Submission Agreement Forms.
Ruth: Randy said that it all starts with basic cable. Then, when cable provider offers a digital package, it requires a digital box and opens the way to new, different packages for viewers. TTC is in a sports package, which usually costs an additional $4 to $6. The situations vary. If you're paying $20, and all you watch is TTC, it's fair to say you're paying that amount for TTC, but Brown believes you need to amortize it against the other things you may watch in the package. "I wish we were in basic cable," Brown said. "But we're not."
Todd: Brian Smejkal, TTC's director of Programming and Scheduling, wrote me an email to say that TTC does not and never did have the rights to the tournament in Thailand.
Well, that about covers the TTC issues. Feel free to post comments if you have any follow-up questions.