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The Bradsher Beat
Thursday, August 18, 2005

By Bethany Bradsher

TV prospects mired in quandaries


Pirate fans will have every right to be frustrated if they don’t get to watch any East Carolina games on television this fall. The tricky part in that scenario will be figuring out who to blame.

Of course, all five parties involved in the negotiations for ECU road game broadcasts are still actively working toward a deal, and ECU director of electronic media Jeff Charles is still optimistic that the Pirate Sports Network will be able to meet its goal of showing four games on WITN-TV 7 this season.

“What ECU fans need to know is, we still want to provide this four-game package,” Charles said. “We want very badly to do that.”

The problem is, the matter of TV rights has become considerably more complicated with the College Sports Television Network's arrival on the scene. In January, ECU announced a six-year agreement between the fledgling college sports channel and Conference USA that includes the rights to everything from television to Internet streaming, radio and wireless distribution and corporate marketing rights.

“Internally, ECU has always been able to make these decisions, but now it has to go through CSTV,” Charles said.

ESPN is still the big player, with the rights to pick up any games it wants to broadcast from the C-USA schedule, Charles said, but the broadcasts of all of the remaining games then belong to CSTV.

Currently 12 C-USA contests — two involving ECU — are on the CSTV fall schedule. That slate comprises 14 percent of the 84 games in which one or both sides are conference members.

The Pirates' season opener, on Sept. 3 against Duke, will be CSTV’s inaugural college contest, set to air at 1 p.m. that Saturday. The new network raised the ire of some ECU fans right out of the chute when it changed the kickoff from the evening to the scorching heat of the afternoon to accommodate its broadcast schedule.

Then a few weeks ago, the station decided to show ECU’s Oct. 22 match up at Memphis. If the Pirates should undergo an astonishing rebirth and make the first C-USA championship game on December 3, that game will be aired on ESPN.

In addition to the complications involving CSTV and ESPN, Cox Communications is throwing the telecasts of the Duke and Memphis into doubt, at least in the Greenville area. The cable network, which serves most of Pitt County, is still in negotiations with CSTV and is making no promises about adding the station to its system, said Cox vice president and general manager Phil Ahlschlager.

“As soon as we make a decision we will let our customers know,” Ahlschlager said. “We have to make a decision on whether that has value for us as a company.”

Ahlschlager hasn’t heard much about how many other major cable companies have included CSTV in their lineups, but one major North Carolina provider, Time Warner Cable, makes no mention of CSTV on its website.

On the CSTV site, would-be viewers are urged to e-mail their cable companies with requests to include the network, but Ahlschlager said that such missives from Greenville customers have been less than overwhelming. CSTV's website also includes a petition intended to be used to convince cable providers of the network's desirability to viewers. The goal for the petition, the site says, is 100,000 signatures, and 97,677 have signed it so far.

As for satellite dish networks, Direct TV is offering CSTV, but only as part of its Total Choice Premier package, which costs $93.99 a month. Dish Network doesn’t yet include the station, according to the CSTV website, but an e-mail link is included for the lobbying purpose of its customers.

"CSTV has a dynamic vision and an excellent management team," C-USA Commissioner Britton Banowsky said at the January press conference announcing the partnership. “The potential of this partnership is staggering. CSTV will be a major player in this industry, there is no doubt about that."

It is certainly too early to assess the accuracy of Banowsky’s forecast. But forgive Pirate fans if they are a little myopic right now, just 17 days before the kickoff of Skip Holtz’s regime. They are not pondering the long-term solvency of CSTV’s stock. They just want to know if they’ll have the chance to watch the Pirates from their recliner, especially when distance prohibits them from being there in person.

The objective of the television package in the past has been to show four road games, Charles said, but occasionally when those could not be scheduled one home game has been aired to retain the four-game package for advertisers. So the ideal outcome of his daily negotiations would be telecasts of four of the following five games: Wake Forest, West Virginia, Southern Methodist, Tulsa and Marshall.

As he juggles the demands of the new network, the conference, the local station and his own university, Charles is still optimistic that he will be announce an agreement soon.

A few blocks away, it’s tougher to say which way things are leaning with Cox Communications. Even if Cox decides to take on CSTV, Ahlschlager said, the company typically has a policy requiring notification to customers of new offerings 30 days in advance.

But in this case, Ahlschlager said, perhaps something extremely rare could occur in this convoluted television scenario — a concession made for the fans.

“In a situation of great urgency, clearly no one is going to challenge the 30-day rule,” Ahlschlager said.

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02/23/2007 01:11:36 AM

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