SBJ/October 17-23, 2011/Colleges

Recommitted to Big 12, OU resumes TV channel planning

Editor's note: This story is updated from the print edition.

Now that the Big 12 appears to have a future that includes the University of Oklahoma, the school has resumed its plans for a branded TV channel that will launch with the start of the 2012 football season.

While school officials have investigated several models of ownership and structure, from a digital network to video-on-demand, a linear TV channel will be the backbone for all of those other elements, industry sources said.

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The Sooners are expected to seek distribution of their TV channel into Texas.
Those discussions about a channel had been in neutral for much of the last month as the Sooners flirted with the Pac-12 while OU’s home conference, the Big 12, teetered on extinction for the second time in the past year. Had Oklahoma gone to the Pac-12, it would have surrendered its media rights to the conference and given up on the idea of creating its own channel.

But OU has recommitted to the Big 12, where schools are permitted to retain and exploit their third-tier TV rights, and with that it has continued talks with potential partners on a school-branded channel. Third-tier rights are the games not picked up by the Big 12’s media partners, ESPN and Fox Sports.

The Sooners are working with Learfield Sports, their multimedia rights holder, on the channel.

“We’ve been presented with some options that we’re considering and our eye is on selecting the one that will be most effective for us in the long term,” Oklahoma Athletic Director Joe Castiglione said. “We never really took our attention away from those conversations, although as we considered moving to a different conference, [starting a channel] could have become a moot point. But we’ve stayed in touch with those interested parties and now we’re moving closer to a decision with our focus still on fall 2012.”

Oklahoma has had off-and-on discussions over the past year with potential partners that include programmers such as Fox and ESPN, and distributors ranging from Cox, the dominant cable operator in Oklahoma, to Comcast and others. Cox holds the key to distribution in the state of Oklahoma, which has about 2 million TV households, but school officials also hope to find distribution outlets outside of the state as well, particularly in neighboring Texas.

They have long considered north Texas as a logical home for their content, but the new Comcast RSN in Houston presents an intriguing possibility that would carry Oklahoma programming deeper into the state. That channel — Comcast SportsNet Houston — will carry the NBA Houston Rockets beginning in 2012 and the MLB Astros in 2013. When those teams aren’t playing, though, the Comcast RSN will need additional sports programming.

Content from OU’s channel could be syndicated to Comcast for use in the Houston market, which would give the Sooners a boost in their distribution efforts outside of Oklahoma and important exposure behind enemy lines in Texas.

Whether Oklahoma owns the channel outright or shares ownership with a distributor or a programmer remains to be seen. The Sooners are not expected to follow the University of Texas’ model on the Longhorn Network, which is completely owned by ESPN. The network is paying Texas a $300 million rights fee over the next 20 years to run the channel.

As with Texas, an Oklahoma channel’s programming would carry at least one live football game, a handful of basketball games, re-airs of archived games, Olympic sports, shoulder programming and coaches shows.

Other Big 12 schools, such as Kansas State and Missouri, are driving more programming to digital channels through their official websites. There also had been some Learfield-led discussions about the eight schools in the league — excluding Texas and Oklahoma — pooling their rights into a channel, but those have been on hold since Texas A&M began to pursue membership in the SEC.

Fox, meanwhile, is opting to wait before deciding whether it will reopen its recently negotiated contract with the Big 12. The Big 12 signed a 13-year, $1.17 billion deal with Fox last April for the conference’s cable rights that will go into effect in July. Since then, Texas A&M departed the Big 12 for the SEC, and TCU has taken the Aggies’ place. Missouri’s future with the conference remains uncertain.

Staff writer John Ourand contributed to this report.
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