College Sports

Caple: Fans have reason to be irked by Pac-12 Network’s emphasis on localized content

Live games air on the Pac-12 Networks’ national channel, but not on all regional channels.
Live games air on the Pac-12 Networks’ national channel, but not on all regional channels. AP file

No offense to the Pac-12 Network or its football Signing Day show. It was probably fine. It was probably informative. It probably told you everything you needed to know about all the teenagers who signed national letters of intent to play football for Pac-12 schools last week.

But I didn’t want to watch it. Because I wanted to watch UCLA and USC play a real, live basketball game, one that was airing on the Pac-12 Network’s national channel while the Signing Day special aired on Pac-12 Washington.

And, like many others in this region with an interest in Pac-12 athletics, I couldn’t watch that basketball game. Not on Pac-12 Washington, anyway, and not on television at all without a service upgrade.

Austin Meek addressed this issue with a fine column published Jan. 20 in The Register-Guard in Eugene, Ore. And since I’ve seen near-unanimous negative feedback on the topic via Twitter (shocking, right?) in recent weeks, let’s explore this befuddling trend some more.

The gist is this: Unlike previous years, if the Pac-12 Network is airing a men’s basketball game, it will only air on the national channel and the regional channels associated with the participating schools.

So, if Washington or Washington State are playing, you can see that game on Pac-12 Washington. But if it’s a game between, say, UCLA and USC, you can only watch that game on television if you have the national channel — which many don’t — or live in an area served by Pac-12 Los Angeles.

Otherwise, your only option is to use the Pac-12 Now/TV Everywhere service on your computer or mobile device. And that’s fine if you don’t mind watching a lower-quality picture on a smaller screen that lags a few seconds to a few minutes behind the live TV action.

Did you want to watch USC battle UCLA in college hoops on Signing Day? Sorry. (Bill Alkofer/The Orange County Register.) 
Did you want to watch USC battle UCLA in college hoops on Signing Day? Sorry. (Bill Alkofer/The Orange County Register.)

Why is this the case? Well, it was always the plan, said Kirk Reynolds, the Pac-12’s VP for communications. But with no library of content for the network’s first few years of existence, its programmers had no choice but to air live games across every regional network, because, well, they had to air something.

The Pac-12 received complaints about this from cable providers, some of which were apparently irked by the lack of differentiation among the regional channels. They wondered, on some level, why they paid to carry seven networks if each looked largely the same.

You’re witnessing the resolution, though it’s been a few years in the making: six distinct, localized networks intended to focus almost solely on the schools associated with each regional channel. It’s why the next time you flip to Pac-12 Washington at 7 p.m. on a Thursday, you might see a replay of Washington’s early-January, double-overtime victory over UCLA instead of a game that, you know, is actually being played live.

“The idea was to have six regional networks that focused all its time on the two local schools,” Reynolds said. “That’s how they were created and that’s why when there’s a live game on somewhere else, you’re getting a different program on the regional network.”

OK, fine. So why do I get Pac-12 Washington but not Pac-12 National? As Reynolds explains, the contract between the Pac-12 Network and its service providers stipulates only that each provider offer one network as part of its “basic” programming tier, and offer at least one in high definition.

Unlike previous years, if the Pac-12 Network is airing a men’s basketball game, it will only air on the national channel and the regional channels associated with the participating schools.

So, if you’re a Comcast subscriber in Seattle … apologies, first of all. But anyway, you get Pac-12 Washington as part of the cable company’s basic package, and you get it in HD. But you have to pay extra for the national channel. And even then, it’s offered only in standard definition, a decision by Comcast that boggles the mind, and surely frustrates the Pac-12, too.

(And another thing: It’s possible to live in one state, such as Washington, but reside in the TV market for another, such as Oregon. This happens in Vancouver and Longview, southwestern Washington cities in the Portland TV market, where subscribers are stuck with Pac-12 Oregon despite their Washington addresses. That’s not the Pac-12’s fault, but it still stinks.)

This change made me wonder: Are there monetary considerations at play for the Pac-12 here? If the network gets more viewers to bite the bullet and pay for the national channel, will the conference make more money? Is the network in possession of data that suggest Pac-12 fans only want to see local content on the regional channels?

Nope, nope and nope. This was simply the plan from the get-go, and you’re just now seeing it executed. It will be that way for football, too, Reynolds said. It’s why he encourages viewers to learn more about Pac-12 Now and get used to watching out-of-region games on their laptops or mobile devices.

This is a major pain in the posterior for folks who enjoy watching live, Pac-12 sporting events, and it’s difficult to understand why a network that still can’t strike a deal with DirecTV would take further steps to limit the availability of its live programming — especially when no data exist to indicate that this is what viewers want.

But if one thing is clear, it’s this: The Pac-12 ain’t changing.

“That original programming plan that we had to get started, just to get going,” Reynolds said, “is no longer in operation.”

That’s good news for fans of replays and studio shows.

But not so much for the rest of us.

Christian Caple: 253-597-8437, @ChristianCaple

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