29 May, 2014

Thoughts On Tennis (Channel)

My nascent return to the blogsphere commences with my wading into the conversation that's been running over the last couple of days on Twitter about Tennis Channel.  During my self-imposed hiatus, I started and ultimately aborted a post about the network that the recent conversations implored me to dust off and update.

Let's start here: for all its faults, the mere existence of a network devoted to tennis is a major win for American fans. As any fan who can tell his 250s from his 500s knows, the tennis season is a 24/7/365 global carnival stretching from Auckland to Stockholm and seemingly every point on the globe in between.  The old-school "take what we deign to show you" network TV model simply doesn't fit in a sport where six tournaments, across multiple continents and time zones can be going on in any given week.  I mean, hypothetically, how can network affiliates schedule cash-cow infomercials if Aga Radwanska goes into a third set in the Seoul final at 3AM Eastern?  Theoretically, how many CBS affiliates will pre-empt the US Open men's final again if a matchup between, say, the two best players in the world would otherwise encroach on their lucrative prime access bloc and The Insider's wall-to-wall coverage on the next disposable reality TV stars' divorce?  Tennis Channel doesn't have these issues and for that alone, the channel's a positive presence.

That said, the network has its challenges; the largest of which is that it's hard to get.  While I have no direct knowledge of Tennis Channel's strategies, until recently they seem to have been working on a three angles to graduate to the upper tier of sports networks.

  • One - Improve The Programming - Obviously, the network that debuted a decade ago was going to raise their game on-air.  While we all loved Open Access and the random badminton events that would pop up on the network in the early days, Tennis Channel have necessarily taken great strides to improve their content over the past few seasons. Adding the incisive Martina Navratilova and the underappreciated Lindsay Davenport as commentators was a masterstroke, while the launch of Center Court, in part as a response to the howls over their tape delayed Davis Cup coverage, has been greeted positively as well. 
  • Two - Own The Rights - Tennis Channel's crown jewel is the US rights to Roland Garros (aka the French Open), part of which they sub-license back to ESPN and NBC.  Tennis Channel now airs part of every major, via similar sublicenses, but more importantly, they're the home of the sport's other biggest events such as the ATP WTF, the recently wrapped Rome Masters and the Davis Cup.  In hoovering up the broadcast rights to so many tournaments, the network sought to make itself a must-buy proposition for serious tennis fans, not to mention a no-brainer for both cable providers and the advertisers attracted to the sport's upscale audience.
  • Three - Litigate - Tennis Channel has traded backhands for the last four years with Comcast/NBC/Universal over a dispute that Tennis Channel hoped would force the (soon-to-be further) engorged cable TV/ISP/Content behemoth to carry them in more homes and off of the higher priced "sports tier."  The result has been more protracted than a mid-90s Sanchez-Vicario/Martinez moonball rally at Roland Garros.
So, where do we stand?  Tennis Channel is reportedly in about 35 million US homes, for reference, that's about one-third of the homes ESPN is in.  The Comcast lawsuit seems to be in legal purgatory and the network has just introduced an over-the-top option, Tennis Channel Plus.  Tennis Channel Plus allows fans to bypass cable.  For $60 per year it gives fans the ability to watch multi-court tournament coverage online a la Watch ESPN, these are things the network's old app used to allow TV subscribers to do at no additional charge for example, during Roland Garros.

It shouldn't be surprising then, that the platform has drawn subscriber ire for everything from cutting TV subscribers off from side-court action that used to be included free-of-charge online, but also for ignoring set-top devices like Roku and AppleTV which would allow fans easy access to Tennis Channel programming on their big screens, not just computers, smartphones and tablets.

So, what's the new strategy? If I had to guess, I'd say there's a feeling that their bid to grow in cable has at best stalled.  Comcast is only getting stronger with its proposed Time Waner Cable acquisition and Tennis Channel have been hitting their figurative head up against the same wall for four years without a decisive victory.  They're also no longer a new kid on the block.  The powers-that-be have had time to view and evaluate the network and for whatever reason, it hasn't been able to even get to CBS Sports Network levels of distribution (approximately 56 million homes).  Unlike in tennis, in business, at some point the clock (read: the money) runs out. 

I'd also posit that sinking money into broadcast rights and top-tier talking heads was meant to draw not just reluctant cable providers to the table, but also, some deep-pocketed suitors.  There are a handful of sports networks jockeying for position to be the next (or other) ESPN.  While Tennis Channel is cozy with the self-styled worldwide leader, News Corp's two new Fox Sports Networks and Al Jazeera's BeIN Sport, among others, all need more live content.  Considering the fact that with the exception of the NBA (whose TV deal ends in 2016), the major sports TV rights are locked up until early in the next decade, Tennis Channel's treasure trove of rights could be a solid purchase at the right price.  While no sensible person would compare tennis ratings to those of the "Big 4" American sports, those programming hours need to be filled with something besides Proactiv infomericals, why not tennis?  With that in mind, Tennis Channel Plus may be a way of showing potential suitors that the audience is in fact there all year long and willing to spend on their favorite sport, rather than just subsisting as part of the average 800 channel cable package.

The other logical option and the most worrying, specifically that Tennis Channel just can't make the economics work the way things stand.  They aren't in enough homes to compete on even footing with the big boys for ad dollars and they've spent significantly to get the operation to its current editorial level.  Charging subscribers directly might be the best (or only) way forward fiscally.

Whatever the logic, I remember when the spring Masters tourneys used to be split on regional networks and I remember Murphy Jensen marathons in lieu of live tennis on Davis Cup weekends.  With that in mind, at least this observer is willing to cut Tennis Channel just a little bit of slack.


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