I’ve had this idea in my head for a while, but like many blogs I haven’t written in the past few weeks, the storm that knocked me out for a week sort of put a kibosh on my productivity. With Saturday’s news that Maryland and Rutgers will likely be joining the Big Ten (known herein as B1G), it bears noting the influence that television has on each and every one of our pathetic, amazing American lives.
Sports TV and radio the focus of this piece, as they represent one half of the media spectrum; the other half comprise of print and web (the method of consumption is different, at least to me). TV and radio are two very different mediums for conveying sports information and opinion.
For one, they are delivered differently: TV is brought to the entire nation, with national network and cable channels being supplemented by local affiliates to broadcast their content. Local affiliates can be either a local channel, like WCBS in New York or WUSA in Washington, that broadcasts local programming as well as national CBS programming, or a carrier, like Cablevision, Comcast or Verizon, that provides national content like ESPN, as well as local content like the aforementioned affiliates, as well as regional sports channels like YES, CSN and ROOT. So while regional considerations are made, channels are programs for the larger audience.
Radio (terrestrial, not satellite), in contrast, is largely a local medium, with national programming serving as filler. ESPN Radio has their stations across the country, with national programming serving as an alternative to local programming; FOX Sports radio is the same. But radio serves a local audience first: callers are a focus of the program, and they are more or less free to discuss whatever they want. Radio shows are comprised of discussion, not discourse. Sure, some radio hosts will expound for hours about their take on a given story, but it always comes back to what does the fan think? When the fan no longer wants to talk about something, it is time to move on.
This is not the case in television. Television does not care about what the fan wants, they tell the fan what they want. Deadspin explored the Tim Tebow faux-nomenon in depth last week, but this much larger than Tim Tebow, though he’s a great example of television ‘writing the narrative’.
It’s really a simple equation:
Stories drive the ratings, ratings drive the money, money drives the Porsches. Executives want the Porsches, so they show the Porsche-conducive stories. There is no recourse for fans, except to not watch. And everyone still wants to watch SportsCenter, and their favorite teams whenever they play on ESPN. Another harsh reality of TV.
Another harsh reality, while we’re at it: Football is at the center of this television phenomenon. Football makes for great TV; it is a great sport, but an even better TV show.
We have been conditioned to watch since the days that MTV played videos and ESPN showed highlight packages; we don’t want to give up these habits. As insufferable as SportsCenter personalities and Skip Bayless are, they and their producers are the ones that are writing the discourse we will talk about. When a story about the Jets giving anonymous quotes shows up in the paper, it is a topic of discussion in New York. When ESPN picks up the story, it becomes a national story, via being shoved down the collective throat of the beer-drinking, football-loving American public. At that point, there is nothing we can do.
This has grown beyond any of us. Football is king, and because of that the Big Ten has a very successful TV network. Fans of Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Iowa, and Nebraska breathe football rather than air. Basketball is big there, as is it in Indiana, Illinois etc., but football (the TV show as well as the sport) has given the conference the opportunity to produce an unprecedented amount of revenue from television ratings. People watch the Big Ten Network (BTN) because they have to.
This has enabled them to muscle their way into Maryland and Rutgers, two big market schools. The impact of either team in their market is left to be determined, but the economics are there:
To subscribe to BTN in a non-B10 market costs about 0.10-0.15 per subscriber. That jumps to roughly 0.85-0.90 for in-market subscribers. Two major east coast markets, New York City and Washington DC, do not require a team inside their borders. Maryland and Rutgers satisfy the requirements to charge more for the BTN, what Yahoo calls the “Big Ten Tax”.
Two teams that nobody expected to see in the B10? Must be TV driving the bus.