I spent some time Friday on the phone with Pac-12 Enterprises president Gary Stevenson – he heads the fledgling Pac-12 Networks, now 10 days old – and we’ll get first to what everybody really wants to know off the top.
Will DirecTV get on board with this, a deal that’s been reported to be close? That would mean an additional, potential 20 million households for the Networks, which are at 48 million in that category.
“I wouldn’t characterize it as close or imminent,” Stevenson said, otherwise holding to his previous take that the content is appealing on the Networks, and “when fans want to have (good) content in today’s television world, they get it.”
I don’t purport to know the TV industry, but it makes sense that as the football season gets nearer – we’re just four days away from several Pac-12 openers Thursday night – the heat will be more intense on DirecTV and the Pac-12 to come to some sort of agreement. Until now, while there have been several live events on the Networks, there hasn’t been football, and that will be the big driver here.
The reason for my overture to Stevenson was to get a philosophical take on the quantity of content per school, as opposed to the more traditional TV dynamic that you go where the greatest number of eyeballs are. (The latter approach would favor schools in LA, for instance, and be a drag on the visibility of smaller schools like Oregon State and Washington State).
The question came in response to what I heard was a message forwarded to the league by one athletic director from a concerned fan who felt his school was being overlooked in the early days of the Networks.
Essentially, Stevenson says the Networks won’t follow the over-the-air TV model of catering to the bigger markets.
“Our approach was not to try to follow TV households at all,” says Stevenson.
“As we’ve looked at programming, we don’t sit down and do a programming grid to say, ‘How can we provide exact coverage for each school?’ And I don’t think the schools would want it that way. I think what the schools would want and the fans want is, the best programming we can provide.
“Our job is to show fans the best competition in the conference.”
Fair enough. If that means you’re showing a ranked women’s soccer team more than one that’s an also-ran, who would argue? While there’s no doubt something of an imperative here to make sure all 12 schools are represented, there’s also a need to get the best games on, and that means the best teams. There has to be a balance.
This week, for instance, there are three live women’s soccer games, one each involving Stanford, Cal and USC. Hard to argue with that, since Stanford is No. 1-ranked in the latest coaches poll and Cal has a strong team.
Similarly, there are two women’s field hockey games on tap this week, one each involving Stanford and Cal. They’re ranked Nos. 11 and 16, respectively, in that coaches poll.
(It’s probably safe to say you’ll be getting a good dose of Stanford sports on this channel because the Cardinal annually cleans up in the college all-sports rankings.)
As for the first two weekends of football play, only two of the 12 schools won’t be on the Networks – USC and UCLA.
Stevenson says there’s little flexibility in the scheduling of live games: “Eight hundred fifty (the combined total of the national network plus all the regionals) is a lot of live games the first year.”
Where the Networks need to be nimble – and Scott says they can be – is in picking up on stories that develop unexpectedly during the season. Things like, say, Keith Price’s emergence at quarterback last year for Washington or Brock Motum’s surge as a junior to the top of Pac-12 basketball scoring charts for Washington State.
“Can we run a feature on an athlete having a special year?” says Stevenson. “You bet. The beauty is, we have the flexibility to pick up stories as they happen.”
Stevenson says the league has had a “great reaction” to the initial days of the Networks, and a similar response to the fledgling Pac-12.com website and its master schedules.
“The only negative story was the one you had,” he said.
I panned the first hour of the Networks at their launch Aug. 15, believing that it was disjointed and hard to follow. I don’t back off from that, but the first hour certainly doesn’t have to define the Networks and its performance going forward – finding that balance between the best teams and best competition with a presentation that serves all 12 schools.