SBJ/August 22-28, 2011/Media

Longhorn Network gathers distribution deals

Just days away from its Friday launch, ESPN’s Longhorn Network has cut several deals with small distributors in the state and is counting on several more this week.

Late last week, ESPN executives were in final negotiations with Verizon and Grande Communications. While at deadline neither company had signed a deal, industry sources were confident that both were close at hand.

This pace of cutting carriage deals so close to a network’s launch is standard in the cable industry. Industry observers expect a flurry of deals for Longhorn Network to be cut this week, in advance of its launch.

“The Longhorns are arguably the strongest brand in the state of Texas and we are confident that, based on the content and the consumer demand, this new cross-platform enterprise will be a success for all involved,” said an ESPN spokesperson.

But the biggest distributors in Texas appear to be far from a deal, including the state’s biggest cable operator, Time Warner Cable, the state’s biggest satellite distributor, DirecTV, and the country’s biggest cable operator, Comcast.

Time Warner Cable appears to be the closest of those three, sources said. With systems surrounding the school’s Austin campus, Time Warner Cable would be the distributor most affected by Longhorn Network, particularly when it carries live coverage of Texas’ Sept. 3 football game against Rice.

Comcast and DirecTV are not close to deals yet, sources said.

Longhorn Network is seeking 40 cents a subscriber a month from distributors in Texas, Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma.

The holdup with Comcast, DirecTV and Time Warner Cable apparently deals with questions over what programming the channel can actually carry. Sources said Comcast, DirecTV and Time Warner Cable will not agree to a deal with Longhorn Network until there’s clarity on exactly what rights the network has.

For example, proposals sent to distributors say the network will carry high school games. Earlier this month, however, the NCAA said university-related TV networks like Longhorn Network would not be allowed to broadcast games involving high school athletes.

The network also has said it will carry two football games a season, including at least one against a Big 12 Conference opponent. The Big 12 has said that Longhorn Network can carry a conference game as long as the opponent approves and the conference signs off on it.

Bob Burda, spokesman for the Big 12, said that the network is free to arrange a televised game between Texas and a conference foe, “but we just want to make sure there aren’t any unintended harmful consequences to any other members of the conference.”

Staff writer Michael Smith contributed to this report.
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