11 for '11: The Longhorn Network

11 for '11 Texas Longhorns Football Graphic

As we near the start of fall camp, this series explores 11 topics and themes related to the 2011 Texas Longhorns football season. Previously in the series:

* The Intoxicating Potential of Manny Diaz
* Assessing The Texas Offensive Line

Last summer we learned that the University of Texas was ready to launch a cable channel dedicated exclusively to all things Longhorn, and by January it reached a 20-year, $300 million deal with ESPN to help develop, launch, and operate the Longhorn Network.  Last week the parties announced some of the on-air talent who will anchor programming on the Longhorn Network, the debut of which will occur at 6 p.m. CT on August 26th, with a live broadcast from the South Mall of the UT-Austin campus.

Although the Longhorn Network is essentially the Big Ten Network reduced to one team (as opposed to an alliance of teams), there exists widespread confusion amongst fans -- both in Austin and elsewhere -- about what the Longhorn Network is, the purpose it serves, and the structure of the deal between Texas and ESPN.  Football being the primary driver of the university's decision to pursue the network, this seems an appropriate time to review those issues and clear up a number of misconceptions about its structure, purpose, and relationship with the "worldwide leader."

The Longhorn Network: Understanding Its Purpose

The first place to start is with UT's interest in launching this network. Probably the best way to think about it is as: (1) an extension of TexasSports.com (and especially, MackBrown-TexasFootball.com), and (2) a replication (at a narrower, more focused scale) of the Big Ten Network. 

As relates to the former, Texas is aiming to expand their multimedia footprint with the Longhorn Network, extending the same kind of industry-leading info-tainment as is typical of the coverage of UT athletics on the university's web properties.  The goal is to provide their enormous consumer base more information about and access to the product with which they are obsessed.  In other words, the Longhorn Network exists to provide fixes for the thousands upon thousands of burnt orange junkies like you and me. 

It's as simple as that, and really, the rest is just logistics.  It might be easier for fans -- Longhorns and otherwise -- to fully grasp that by thinking about it in light of the Big Ten Network.  Ultimately, Texas is simply replicating the Big Ten Network's relatively uncontroversial model.  Although there is an obvious difference in scope of the coverage -- eleven teams instead of one -- critics who seize upon that distinction fail to grasp the fundamental character of the Big Ten Network, mistakenly concluding that because the Big Ten Network provides coverage of all the conference participants that it is a neutral, quasi-outside media entity.  Although it may be neutral as between the Big Ten programs themselves, it is a product of those very programs, existing solely at their behest and to serve the interests of their constituents. 

The same is true of the Longhorn Network.  It is a network created by the University of Texas, for Texas Longhorns fans, and will be no less focused on highlighting Longhorns athletics as the Big Ten Network is the athletics of Big Ten conference members.  Just as it would be antithetical to the very purpose of the Big Ten Network to focus on the interest of, say, SEC fans -- or, really, the fans of anyone other than Big Ten universities -- the Longhorn Network necessarily will serve the interests of UT fans.  The Longhorn Network and Big Ten Network exist for exactly the same reasons and to serve the exact same purposes.

Behind many of the anxious criticisms of the Longhorn Network is a misunderstanding of that basic purpose.  To start with, fans in Austin and abroad need to disavow any apprehensions related to the ability of the Longhorn Network to meet high journalistic standards.  The Longhorn Network has no such obligation, precisely because it is not an independent media entity.  ESPN is a contractor of the University of Texas, bound to perform specific tasks -- no more, no less.  This is precisely the same at the Big Ten Network, which similarly exists as a contractor for the founding parties.  The Big Ten Network is not an independent media organization tasked with providing objective reporting in accordance with its own journalistic mission.  It is a contractor of the schools of the Big Ten, created and then hired by the Big Ten conference members to perform tasks beneficial to the Big Ten conference members.  The same is true with the Longhorn Network, the only difference being that we contracted the work to ESPN, rather than our own television production company.

If it is rigorous journalism you want, look to those whose mission is to provide it.  To criticize the Longhorn Network for not providing it is as misplaced as would be criticizing CBS Sports for not asking Texas what it would like to have reported (and not reported).  Texas hired ESPN to carry the university's programming, not to be an independent media entity with a burnt orange logo.

(Parenthetically, even if it were the case that ESPN had some independent journalistic obligation in this arrangement -- which it absolutely does not -- it is rather humorous to criticize the Longhorn Network as receiving unfair immunity, as though ESPN is out there providing hard-hitting stories and serious investigative journalism.)

The Content That Matters

In light of the Longhorn Network's purpose, we can now properly evaluate its content.  As explained above, anyone expecting "independent" coverage of Texas misunderstands the Longhorn Network and its purpose.  Instead, it is perfectly appropriate to expect coverage that, well, highlights the University of Texas and its athletics programs. If they do a good job, they'll offer useful critiques of the coaches/players/teams/games, but even if they disappoint their constituent audience (UT fans) in that regard, there is no doubt that they will provide an abundance of previews, recaps, highlights, and the like.  Instead of going to MB-TF.com for video breaking down this week's opponent, UT fans will watch a 30-minute program on the LHN.  It may or may not be well done, but it will be exclusively focused on and geared towards the interests of UT fans.

Beyond informational entertainment related to Texas games/teams/seasons, the Longhorn Network will offer live broadcast content.  In conjunction with current television contracts to which UT is a party, fans can expect the Longhorn Network to be the carrier for 1-3 football games per season, starting with this year's season opener versus Rice. For the foreseeable future, every major Texas football game will be carried on channels with broader reach (such as ABC or ESPN), and the more important impact of live broadcasts will be felt by other sports.  Although most major hoops games will still be broadcast by broader-reaching networks, fans can look forward to seeing at least a half dozen basketball games on LHN, and never have to worry about a non-televised UT basketball game again.  Most dramatic will be the impact on UT sports that are only occasionally -- or never -- on television.  The Longhorn Network is a huge boon to Texas baseball fans, and a wonderful benefit for Texas student athletes playing volleyball, softball, and the like, who will now have many -- and perhaps all -- of their games available for television viewing, if not live, at least on delayed broadcast.

Much to the chagrin of a number of Aggies, the Longhorn Network will also carry the occasional high school football game.  To be sure, such broadcasts will serve the interests of both the property holder (UT) and the consumers (UT fans), the exposure serving as beneficial to the football program, and the opportunity to evaluate prospects engaging to interested fans.  However, such broadcasts also serve relevant business purposes, by improving the prospects for a broader subscriber base with content enticing to otherwise disinterested consumers. 

Are such broadcasts beneficial to Texas and its recruiting efforts? Of course, as is the Longhorn Network, generally. Is it underhanded or unfair? Not at all, unless one is willing to embrace a standard of egalitarianism radically different from what exists in modern college athletics.  An Aggie who wants to rage about the inequity of the Longhorn Network should be prepared to give up Texas A&M's advantages over the University of Houston -- and, for that matter, to cry foul at the Big Ten for starting its own network, to its advantage over everyone else.

I'm not insensitive to complaints that the Longhorn Network represents a particularly poignant example of the current state of big money and corporatism in college athletics, but willing participants in the game don't have much room to complain. Such critics need to be honest and not attempt to characterize a structural problem as a singularly Texas problem.

Understanding Upside

In sum, the Longhorn Network is a creation of the University of Texas, owned by the University of Texas, launched to serve the interests of the University of Texas.  Its relationship with ESPN necessarily must be evaluated in that light, and many of the criticisms of the Longhorn Network simply make no sense in light of that purpose, the role ESPN is playing in the endeavor, and the contract between the two parties.

Typical of these specious arguments and the fundamental misunderstandings on which they are based is the one offered here and here by Aggie fan miketag:

As for the LHN, I still do not think it will be a success. I do not think there will be enough content to produce a viable product. The Big 10 Network struggles to fill their programming and they have 10 different schools worth of content. Even for the most die hard fan, I doubt watching the 2010 season on repeat for the 3rd time appeals to anyone. As I have said before, how many people are going to tune in to watch your crew team?

There are numerous problems here, but as a starting point let's note that the deal is already done -- the $300 million payment to Texas sealed by contract. Even if, as miketag contends, there is a struggle to create programming and the product isn't successful with fans, Texas's offering has already been purchased by ESPN, who carries the monetary risk of failure.  Texas gets paid either way, and the most you can argue is that it will flop and Texas will not be able to continue it after 2031.  Of course, twenty years ago we didn't even have the internet, so it's awfully hard to view the possibility that Texas won't be able to reach the same deal again in 20 years as a point of weakness of the deal it reached for itself right now.

Beyond that glaring misjudgment, there is miketag's confusion about the importance of riveting 24/7/365 programming to make the channel successful.  It's as though he imagines that 95% of the Big Ten Network's subscribers pony up for some reason other than to have access to a handful of important events they care about and can only access if they subscribe.  Hell, the Longhorn Network could limit itself to 4 hours a day of programming, and if it still provided the only way to watch a number of live Texas games each year, we'd still all sign up.  I can tell you that I'll be ordering the Longhorn Network and that I'll probably watch the live events and maybe -- maybe -- an hour or two a week of other crap.  And I suspect that's true of the vast majority of subscribers.  Whether people subscribe will have nothing to do with whether they succeed in filling all 24 hours a day with riveting content and everything to do with whether being a subscriber is essential to watching a handful of things we care deeply about.  The 3 a.m. replay of the crew team's meet will be watched by almost no one, and will have absolutely zero impact on whether the Longhorn Network is a viable endeavor.

At the end of the day, Texas got paid $300 million dollars over 20 years to let ESPN carry the risk that no one will subscribe.  Never mind that we will because the parties will work to ensure that there are live events that make subscription essential to Texas sports fans, the risk of a flop is entirely with ESPN.  All the upside is pure gravy for Texas -- from the benefits of more deeply engaging their huge and rabid fan base, to the potential for greater exposure to assist the university in growing that fan base and recruiting top athletes to its programs. 

It's a giant infomercial for the University of Texas and Longhorns athletics, and we're being paid for the privilege. If that's all it is and 20 years from now the network disappears, it will still have been the best $300 million we were paid to spend.

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