Longhorn Network Launches Campaign Even As Distributors Aren't Hooked

by , Jun 18, 2012, 4:05 PM
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Sure, he might be a diehard A&M Aggie. Or, a UT grad who feels the career services department let him down. Regardless, his Facebook post Monday had some of the volume of a UT pep rally.

“What is this ‘Longhorn Network’ you speak of?” Doug Fullerton wrote.

His clear jab appeared on the Longhorn Network’s Facebook page in a section about a new ad campaign for the network focusing on University of Texas athletics. It’s been well-documented that the ESPN-owned channel (LHN) has struggled to gain distribution. As it enters its second year, it's in only about 4 million homes.

Part of ESPN’s deal with UT is to help provide educational opportunities for students. There’s also a provision to work with the university to develop an annual LHN promotional campaign.

The two goals come together in a “Watch What You Love” campaign that launched Monday, where six students were involved in development. The pair of spots will run on LHN and ESPN (in the state of Texas) and online.

One is hilarious. A father tells his daughter a bedtime story about UT’s legendary win in the 2006 national championship game. She wants to hear it again. He’s reluctant.

She says with cute defiance: “Mack Brown would tell it again.” How could the father fight back? It's the Texas coaching deity. He can’t and begins again. She’s elated.

Even Texas A&M fans have to appreciate the creativity.

The other spot is well done, but less moving. A UTer labors late in his Manhattan office with a splendid view of the Empire State Building. Homesick, he moves a photo of the famed UT Tower, so "campus" dominates his view instead.

ESPN should consider running the father-daughter spot with a “Call Your Cable Provider” message to help it boost its subscriber tolls above the 4 million.

Right now, the affiliate revenues ESPN is collecting would seem to be below the minimum $11 million it pays in rights fees to UT. ESPN has also projected some $15 million in annual production expenses. (IMG, which has a relationship with UT, sells LHN advertising.)

Pretty telling is Time Warner Cable (TWC) has not agreed to carry the network. Not just nationwide or in the state of Texas, but close to campus in Austin. If (TWC) felt no LHN availability was causing it to hemorrhage customers, it would have probably buckled by now and begun offering it.

But as long as DirecTV, Dish Network and AT&T U-Verse continue to balk at paying ESPN’s rights fees, LHN might continue to have scant carriage for a long time. Verizon is the only competitor to cable operators that has started offering LHN in Texas, while also giving some alumni a chance to pick it up across the country.

(That means the guy in the LHN ad working late in Manhattan better live in a home with Verizon FiOS service if he is desperate to catch Mack Brown non-stop in the fall.)

LHN’s difficulties are in stark contrast to the Pac-12 networks launching this summer. They already have carriage deals with TWC, Comcast, Cox and Bright House. The network will have regional distribution in the West and national availability.

It could be an interesting test case in how appealing narrowly targeted college-sports networks are if DirecTV remains a long-time holdout with the Pac-12. There may, however, be a regional element since the Big Ten Network has met with success.

At some point, ESPN could look to offer some equity in LHN to distributers in exchange for carriage. That was sort of a path the Big Ten Network took. When its launch was announced, News Corp. held a stake in the network and controlled DirecTV, which became the first operator that agreed to distribute it.

The Pac-12 has moved ahead without ceding ownership. So, its ability to hook distributors is impressive.

Maybe UT fans’ horns are duller than ESPN thought they were when it comes to poking distributors? 

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