Most local providers still in talks to carry SEC Network

The SEC Network launches one month and a day from now.

But as the network's Aug. 14 launch date continues to inch closer, the more dicey it gets for television viewers in the Chattahoochee Valley.

As of Saturday afternoon, nearly every provider that serves the area remained locked in discussion with ESPN, which is handling the contracts on behalf of the Southeastern Conference.

That's the case for Charter, Mediacom and DirecTV.

The same goes for WOW! and Cable TV of East Alabama.

There have been lots of negotiations but no agreement to carry the SEC Network. And none of them seem concerned because they all are confident negotiations will wrap up soon enough.

Yet that quintet of companies is still seeking what Dish Network has had for months: a done deal, and with it, peace of mind.

The operative phrase: 'Ongoing negotiations'

Dave Troxel has been around the television industry long enough to have dealt with myriad high-demand networks that materialize from time to time.

The SEC Network, for his money, ranks among the most anticipated he can recall. But in a surprisingly candid admission, he flatly stated he's received more feedback about emerging networks in years past.

What separates the SEC Network from the rest — which should come as no surprise to those familiar with the conference's fervent fan bases — is the passion.

This isn't a coordinated push; it's a grassroots effort.

"A lot of times when new networks that have a high profile are launched, the programmers themselves will have publicity campaigns and promotions and encourage people to write in or make telephone calls or send emails, those sorts of things, where you're getting stuff on a daily basis," said Troxel, the vice president and general manager for WOW! in Columbus, Auburn and Valley, Ala. "It's more organized. That's not the case here."

While WOW! is still in talks with ESPN, Troxel said last week that he was "very, very confident" an agreement was in the offing.

"At this point, we're just wanting to cross the t's and dot the i's," he said. "Our intent is that we'll carry it, but you still have to finalize the carriage agreement. We're doing that and we fully expect that to happen."

Other providers weren't quite as forthcoming as Troxel and WOW!, preferring to keep things close to the vest.

Through a spokesman, Charter declined to comment on the SEC Network, citing its "ongoing negotiations" with ESPN.

Mediacom was similarly succinct, as a spokesperson for the company refused to take questions on the matter, offering only that coming to terms to carry the SEC Network was "an ongoing process."

Both of those concise statements marked more traction than one could gain with DirecTV. Repeated attempts to reach its representatives were unsuccessful. The only way to find out anything about the company's view of the SEC Network is to head to its official website.

There, DirecTV left a statement, which it updated Thursday.

"We're in the middle of productive discussions with Disney over ESPN's new SEC Network and hope to be able to provide it as soon as we possibly can," the statement reads. "Both DirecTV and Disney understand and appreciate the unique bond between SEC teams and the communities they represent, many of which lack any professional teams. We are working cooperatively to ensure that everyone can still see their favorite SEC team play at the most reasonable value to all SEC fans and the rest of our customers throughout the Southeast."

'We have every intention to have the SEC Network'

Joan Budd didn't have any numbers. And she wasn't even sure any were kept. All she knew was that Cable TV of East Alabama had "gotten a lot of calls" about the SEC Network.

The message was heard loud and clear.

"We're right in the middle of SEC football territory. We understand that," said Budd, general counsel for Cable TV of East Alabama. "We've been reaching out to ESPN for quite some time, and we're in contract negotiations now."

Deliberations have been taking place, but no one from Cable TV of East Alabama has been at the table, so to speak. That's been left to the National Cable Television Cooperative, which handles these types of contract discussions for independent cable operators across the country.

In sum, Budd said the National Cable Television Cooperative has "a little more than 800" members, representing 5 million subscribers.

"They are an organization that was created to be a cooperative for independent cable operators, mostly smaller in scale, not the big, huge names everyone knows on a national basis," she said. "It was created to be a representative so that each cable company had a fair shake."

So even though Cable TV of East Alabama isn't physically in the room or on the phone with ESPN, it's always aware of where things stand.

"We stay in constant contact with NCTC. That's how we've negotiated a number of our large network contracts," Budd said. "And then we have the right to accept the contract or reject. But we have every intention to have the SEC Network before or right at the launch (date)."

'It's a piece of culture'

As other companies continue to huddle with ESPN to nail down particulars, Dish Network is already two steps ahead. Dish reached an agreement to carry the SEC Network in March, making it the first nationwide provider to do so. Of course, that leads one to the painfully obvious question: How did Dish get the deal done so soon?

Cue the well-worn adage "timing is everything."

"We had a forward-thinking partner in Disney and ESPN and we were looking at it as a (top) objective to bring the SEC Network to customers," said John Hall, a spokesman for Dish. "So we started conversations very early. We were certainly proactive in those discussions with ESPN. It was not lost on us that we wanted to come in early so customers knew that they'd be able to see it on Dish come Aug. 14."

And it's a move that has paid off handsomely, already engendering goodwill among both "customers and potential customers." It sounds like typical PR talk, sure.

But Hall knows his target audience.

When it comes to being able to watch their favorite teams on TV, sports fans — especially those in the SEC — favor dealing in absolutes rather than hypotheticals.

"It's like talking to them on a personal level, which is particularly important when it comes to SEC sports," Hall said. "It's a piece of culture and it's important for us to connect with our customers and potential customers on that level about things that are important to them."

When it comes to importance, one would think Dish lapping the field with its competitors in regards to landing the SEC Network months ago would be given the highest priority. But if that was the case, Hall did a good job of not showing it.

Downplaying any talk of besting rivals, Hall elected to keep the focus on those his company serves.

"It's really more about customers and consumers in general — those who are already a customer or may be interested in becoming one," he said. "Something we say around here is, 'Follow the customer. Do what the customer wants and you're going to be right.' So what we're interested in is giving customers what they want."

Last-minute agreements commonplace

Dish is the outlier, of course. If negotiating was simple, every company would have been signed up for the SEC Network by now. These days, protracted discussions are part of the process.

In turn, last-minute agreements are becoming more of the rule than the exception.

"It's just the evolution of the cable industry," Budd said. "Not everybody signs a contract at the same time, so Comcast's contract may expire on Dec. 31 and Time Warner's contract may expire June 15. So it's really (about) when that particular operator's contract comes back up for renewal."

Troxel agreed.

"In many cases (when) it comes to new networks, if the company that owns it believes it's worth a whole lot more than maybe the value our customers place on it, then yes, things can drag out," he said.

It's only going to get worse, Budd said. More and more, massive media conglomerates have tried to force providers into all-or-nothing deals. She pointed to the National Cable Television Cooperative's contentious negotiations with Viacom — which owns CBS, Nickelodeon and MTV, among others — earlier this year, which were touch-and-go and required multiple extensions on the night the deal ended before the sides came to an accord.

Had the agreement not been reached, Viacom would have pulled Cable TV of East Alabama's signal.

"So we don't get to say, 'We'd like to keep Nickelodeon and BET and MTV and maybe three or four more of your channels, but we don't think our demographic fits with some of your other channels,'" Budd said. "They say, 'No, you take all 17 you've been carrying or you don't get any. Oh, and by the way, you're going to pay this much.'"

Budd doesn't anticipate those kinds of to-the-buzzer theatrics with ESPN, though.

"We've never not signed an ESPN contract," she said. "You can't not have ESPN."

In that same vein, Troxel said, one can't have ESPN without the SEC Network. And that's not him being melodramatic. It's business.

Call it shrewd negotiating on the part of "The Worldwide Leader in Sports."

"They pretty much are bundling the SEC Network with ESPN and ESPN's products," Troxel said. "So if you want ESPN, you're probably going to end up carrying the SEC Network, too."