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Big Ten Has Holes in Line

The Big Ten Network added Insight Communications to its roster ahead of last Thursday's network launch — but still came out of the chute with major holes in its distribution lineup.

Elizabeth Conlisk, vice president of communications for BTN, which is co-owned by the 11 member schools and Fox National Cable Sports Networks, said the service was continuing carriage talks with Time Warner Cable, Charter Communications, Dish Network and Mediacom Communications as of Friday. It was not in discussions with Comcast, which reaches 5.4 million homes in the states where the schools are located.

Comcast and other distributors have balked at BTN's terms, which reportedly call for a monthly subscriber fee of about $1 per month within the conference's footprint and a 10-cent fee outside of those states.

The nation's largest operator has been adamant that BTN should be positioned on a sports tier, a stance Fox National Cable president Bob Thompson has said Comcast will not back off from.

In addition to Insight — which reached an accord Aug. 29 for some 640,000 of its customers, including subscribers in Columbus, Ohio, home to the Ohio State Buckeyes — BTN has deals with DirecTV, AT&T's U-Verse TV and 100 smaller Midwest cable operators and municipal providers.

Mediacom vice president of legal affairs Tom Larsen said the cable operator, which has a presence in all the Big Ten states — including minor ones in Michigan and Ohio, except for Pennsylvania — was “still talking” with Fox on Friday.

“We have not closed the doors on any options. The issue is that they want the best of both worlds: expanded basic and a rate that is higher than 95% of the networks,” he said. “If they want the top-tier service, then they have to move on the rate.”

Last Thursday, Mediacom and BTN publicly knocked helmets as the operator claimed that Fox denied its request to televise the Aug. 30 match-up between the Iowa State University Cyclones and Kent State University because it won't carry BTN.

Mediacom, which has about 500,000 subscribers in Iowa, made the request along with the Big 12 Conference member Iowa State. The operator had acquired rights to carry Iowa State's first game of the season in the past — it was carried on its Mediacom Connections channel in 2006. Mediacom maintained that Fox declined to do the same this year, because the game coincided with the scheduled launch of BTN.

Fox Sports National Cable Networks said in a statement that ISU was given permission to stream its game live at cyclones.com. Fox's statement read that this “obviously denies Mediacom what it's really seeking — the right to be the exclusive distributor of the game at the expense of every other broadcast, cable and satellite provider in Iowa.”

Fox later said it thought at first that Mediacom wanted the game rights at no charge, which was not the case, and softened its stance overall. “Fox enjoys a long-standing relationship with Mediacom Communications, which has partnered with us on many of our individual networks,” a Fox statement said Friday. “We respect that relationship and would rather not diminish it through any contention over carriage rights to an individual game.”

Mediacom gained the rights from holder ESPNU to televise the first 2007 game of Big Ten conference member the University of Iowa on Sept. 1 via the Mediacom Connections channel. Mediacom carries ESPNU on its digital sports tier and asked the network if it could carry the game on its analog channel, Larsen said.

Insight is carrying BTN on its Classic service (its version of analog basic) in Columbus, Ohio, and Evansville, Ind. The operator's Digital 2.0 service (digital basic) is offering the network in its Kentucky markets of Louisville, Lexington, Bowling Green and the northern part of the state, all of which fall outside of core BTN territory.

The pact does not cover systems that are part of Insight's 50-50 partnership with Comcast. The parties have agreed to split their holdings with the nation's largest cable operator, receiving more than 680,000 customers in Illinois and Indiana.