“It has unleashed value for us and given us options and opportunities we never had before,” said Jim Delany, commissioner of the Big Ten and a driving force behind the network. “When President Obama comes to the University of Michigan, we can televise it. When there are flood relief efforts in Iowa, we can be part of that. It has not only extended, but has changed the shape of our brand.”
Of course, I heard the idea first years ago and thought it was daft – a network whose only visible means of support was big-time football and basketball, showing all the other random sports at a loss and filled with those low-budget promotional programs for universities. I thought they were silly to prefer their own network to the massive exposure of the big four and other sports networks. But if you think of something like the Big Ten Network (which I’ve never watched, by the way) as a melange of ESPN, CNN, PBS, and (here’s the surprising bit) C-Span, the equation gets really interesting. Here’s why.
A network like the Big Ten Network – with coverage of 35% of the nation (I assume that measures territory, not population) cuts out the middle man on keeping the profits for its major sports. Of course this was the intent. They knew going into the TV business that they would have to rely on non-revenue-generating athletics to fill most of their content. But as it turns out, these have “overperformed.” So the lower profile athletics are now turning a profit – I assume by providing what actually turned out to be interesting content off of which to hang advertising. This is what Delany referred to as “extending” the brand.
The traditional networks have completely abdicated their responsibility to public service, and there is no place for a serious public discourse either. Even news is entertainment, not public information. If it doesn’t sell detergent, it won’t air. BUT the success of athletics on this new network and the need to fill airtime has led the Big Ten Network to “change the shape” of their brand. The network is now in the news business. And if the standards of the member Universities are applied, this should reach a minimum standard of accountability and factuality. And because it’s lower budget, it does not have to draw the same viewership to stay afloat, thus hopefully bucking the trend of news as entertainment…
Further – the biggest potential I see is not for current events coverage to be the public service – but a two-pronged reimagining of the member Universities. First, the fact that it could provide a medium for the dissemination of academic work. Imagine academic conferences, lectures, and public education airing just a few hours after Ohio State Buckeyes’ games. This realizes the true heterodox mission of the American university system.
Second – and most importantly, universities are growing in power and influence by the day, and the public needs to be allowed scrutiny. On this “Big Ten Network,” the universities of the Big Ten, and the administrative structure of the Big Ten should be given the C-Span treatment and exposed to the public; allowing analysis, critique, and contribution. Especially considering most of the conference is composed of large state-run schools, this accountability is essential and powerful in allowing the population to be partners in defining – or at least understanding – the changing nature of the University and its place in the American system.
In short, having a unique position in the American governmental and business landscape, Universities are changing. The existence of the Big Ten Network is proof of this – and its potential reaches far beyond sports into the community as news about that community; but most interestingly opening the classroom and the university boardroom to the public they are supposed to serve and extending the mission of the University in the exercise of American civil society. The success of collegiate athletics has led to an elevation of the whole system of higher education ever since the rise of football in the early 20th century, and this is another evolution of that, which could change the landscape not only of education, but of the media for good, and for better.