Millions could miss BCS bowl games

Wednesday, December 23, 2009 - 1:30pm

UNDATED - It's easy to trash Fox's consistently ham-fisted presentation of BCS games over the last three years — the endless shots of the Kansas band and over-the-top Tebow love will go down in bad broadcasting history — and it will be a relief to have the season's premiere games moving to the reliable college football pros at ESPN next year. But Fox has at least demonstrated the ability to actually present the games to a nationwide audience, which suddenly isn't a certainty this year thanks to an intensifying dispute with Time Warner:

Time Warner Cable customers could see Fox disappear from their screens if the two media companies don't negotiate a new contract soon. The cable company's current deal with Fox in several markets ... will expire at midnight Dec. 31.

If a compromise isn't worked out, Time Warner's ... customers could miss three BCS bowl games: the Jan. 1 Allstate Sugar Bowl (Florida vs. Cincinnati), the Jan. 4 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl (Boise State vs. TCU) and the Jan. 5 FedEx Orange Bowl (Georgia Tech vs. Iowa).
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The current dispute affects several markets where long-term deals with Fox television stations are about to expire, including Austin; Dallas; New York; Los Angeles; Detroit; Orlando, Fla.; and Tampa, Fla.

Thankfully, Austin and other Texas cities won't miss the Longhorns' appearance in the BCS Championship game on Jan. 7 (the title game, like the Rose Bowl, is being broadcast by ABC/ESPN), but other locals may not be so lucky: Florida fans in Tampa and Orlando could miss the Gators' turn in the Sugar Bowl; Dallas/Forth Worth residents may not get to see the hometown heroes from TCU in their bid to finish an undefeated season in the Fiesta Bowl; and DFW viewers could also find themselves in the dark for the Cotton Bowl game going on just down the road on Jan. 2. Parts of the nation's largest market — to the extent New Yorkers care about college football — could miss out on the spectacle completely. All in the name of Fox getting an extra buck from Time Warner for each subscriber, an unprecedented fee for a network, and one Time Warner says it isn't about to pass on to customers.

The result: Time Warner customers (including yours truly, a resident of one of the cities in question and a likely visitor to another during the New Year gridiron bonanza) may have to go on a great hunt for a satellite feed and a willing host. Sports bars in these areas, coincidentally, don't really see the problem here.

For the record, this can happen: Earlier this year, Time Warner narrowly averted blacking out Viacom channels — including MTV, Nickelodeon and Comedy Central — for millions of viewers with a last-minute deal, and an agreement between Sinclair Broadcasting Group and Mediacom Communications Corp. ended a five-week blackout on certain stations just in time to get the Super Bowl to subscribers in 11 states in 2007. A similar dispute between those same two companies over contract that expires on Jan. 1 threatens to preempt Iowa's appearance in the Orange Bowl for hundreds of thousands of outraged viewers in the Hawkeye State if there's no new deal (or an exception for the sake of the game) by Jan. 5.

The only possible positive to a widespread BCS blackout anywhere is potential for a dramatic ratings drop to theoretically accelerate (or at least create some sense of urgency for) some playoff-like reform. If nothing else, maybe some of the "Boycott the BCS" crowd will actually be able to follow through with it.

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