Independently owned Tennis Channel has just this kind of issue: a recent reversal of fortune in its long-running dispute to get basic carriage on Comcast cable systems.
Comcast owns Golf Channel and NBC Sports Network, and Tennis Channel says Comcast plays favorites with its own sports channels. But a Court of Appeals ruling reversed an FCC decision, saying there was not enough evidence that Comcast was guilty of discrimination.
Tennis Channel is on the small size -- some 35 million U.S. subscribers – and looking to get larger. ESPN, by comparison, has nearly 100 million subscribers and the soon-to-arrive Fox Sports 1 will launch with 90 million subs.
National TV advertisers still look to big, well-distributed networks for their main media buys. And Tennis Channel’s fight isn’t just ad revenues: it also wants to capitalize on the growing monthly subscriber fees that a bigger distribution deal -- and resuting higher ratings -- might garner.
Ken Solomon, chief executive of Tennis Channel, sent a eyebrow-raising email to his staff that showed his anger about the decision. Here is one sentence: “It’s like being raped for a decade by a brutal captor.” Solomon quickly apologized for his “excessively colorful and inappropriate words.”
In this new digital media world, many critics would say Tennis Channel has alternatives. Realists would chime in that an online-based business model for a cable network won’t bring in anywhere close to the revenues that a traditional TV network -- cable or broadcast -- gets.
Independent channels can have it tough. The club for networks with no direct or distant connection to the bigger media companies isn’t big. It includes Hallmark Channel and the Hallmark Movie Channel; the networks of Al Jazerra America (which include the former Al Gore-owned Current and beIN Sports); and perhaps also the Scripps Network Interactive group of channels, Food Network and HGTV among them.
And Tennis Channel is not just independent. It’s also a sports network.
Solomon’s suffering comes at a time when there is not only increased affection, but also increased criticism, regarding sports channels. While many talk about the rating consistency of live sports -- so valuable for many advertisers because they minimize time-shifting issues -- many multi-channel TV distributors have been publicly verbal in their desire to elbow sports channels into separate pay programming “tiers.”
That can be boom or bust. And with it comes a TV network executive’s intensity and language, which can be blunt and inappropriate.