Big Ten network cuts academics, citing low ratings
The Big Ten cable network has been an unchallenged success promoting conference sports to a national audience and making money for its members. The academic programming its leaders had promised hasn't panned out.
When the Big Ten Network launched in 2007, officials said it would promote the scholarly work done at its 11 schools. The network, Commissioner Jim Delany said, would broadcast up to 60 hours of non-sports programming from each school every year, providing "the ability to highlight academic achievement throughout the universities."
Five years later, the network is running less academic coverage than ever as it generates tens of millions in revenue for the conference and boasts of 51 million subscribers. Citing low ratings and poor production quality, the network and university presidents agreed to slash academic programming and emphasize quality and ratings over quantity.
That means more time to air revenue-generating sports such as football, even in the offseason. Ratings are up. The network also said it has followed through on its promise of covering an equal amount of men's and women's live events, shows everything from lacrosse to softball, and has given nearly 300 students experience in sports television production.
League officials say the 660-hours goal turned out to be impractical. A show about one university alienated other viewers, and universities had varying levels of video capability.
"Most of them didn't have the resources to produce the shows. It was always set up to be at their cost, not the network's," Delany said. "We were willing to give the time, but the universities had to create the shows. When we came up with the number of hours, we didn't know what the schools were capable of producing."
"There's fewer hours now, but the ratings are better and the production value is much better — top-notch, in fact."
The change, though, is a disappointment to some of the people who produced non-sports documentaries.
"I think they should hold true to what their mission was when they set out, which was to give a voice to all these campuses and allow us to tell our own stories," said Alison Davis Wood, an Illinois producer who had a hand in producing programs on figures such as Nobel Prize-winning professor John Bardeen.
For three years, Kecia Lynn hosted a program produced by the University of Iowa on the network where she interviewed authors such as Michael Cunningham ("The Hours") and others associated with the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She said she was told last year the show was cancelled.
"I understand the Big Ten network and that there is a lot of revenue generated by having this. At the same time, when you look at Iowa specifically and the literary reputation here, it's a missed opportunity," she said. "My show reached out to people who didn't know about this aspect of the university."
Penn State, which had been among the most prolific at producing shows, has cut programming by 95 percent, a spokesman said.
Mark Silverman, president of the renamed BTN, said it was clear the initial plan wasn't working after just a year.
"We were getting 20 hours from one school and none from others," he said, adding that production quality on many programs wasn't good enough to draw and keep viewers. "It doesn't matter how much you have on the air if no one's watching it."
Non-sports programming proved to be similarly problematic for the Mountain West Conference network. Spokesman Hayne Ellis said only a handful of conference schools ever provided programming and it is now down to a single half-hour show from San Diego State.
The Longhorn Network, the University of Texas partnership with ESPN, has been on for less than a year but plans to air 900 hours of academic programming by the end of those 12 months, ESPN spokeswoman Kerri Potts said. That programming includes commencement ceremonies — broadcast live and then replayed multiple times — and class lectures, neither of which were part of the BTN's plans.
The Pac-12 Network, set to launch in August, plans to air non-sports programming but isn't yet sure how much, spokesman Kirk Reynolds said.
The BTN wound up hiring a firm to produce a series, "Impact the World," which debuted in January and featured episodes about research at every school. It got higher ratings than prior academic programming, officials said, and a second season is expected later this year.
The network, a joint venture between the league and Fox Sports, paid the Big Ten more than $74 million in 2010, according to its latest tax return. The money made up part of the $20 million in total revenue the conference sent to its member schools under their revenue-sharing agreement.
Overall ratings were up 11 percent this year, said Big Ten network Vice President Elizabeth Conlisk. "Impact the World" drew several times as many viewers as individual campus programs did, she added, and other features are in the works.
As for Lynn's program, she said it was Iowa's decision to cancel the show.
Scott Ketelsen, director of Iowa's marketing and media production, said viewership "fell off the table" when such programming was aired, and everyone agreed change was necessary. In the end, he said the network was a business that was pouring cash into school programs. He has hired two campus videographers with money from BTN.
"You can make both sides of the argument as far as the type of programming that should be viewed on there and I understand that," he said. "But in this day of tight budgets and purse strings being pulled tight, something like BTN being successful and infusing money back into the universities is huge."
Mercer reported from Champaign, Ill. AP Sports Writer Larry Lage contributed to this report.