More TV stuff + 49ers stadium a few bucks short

I’m not usually one to dabble in rumormongering, but this one seemed juicy so I can’t really resist. During KNBR’s 10 a.m. segment on Wednesday featuring Gary Radnich and Tony Bruno, a caller claimed that the FOX affiliation in the Bay Area is up for grabs, with longtime station KTVU losing grip and Radnich’s own KRON in the running. Radnich tacitly confirmed the rumor, saying (I’m paraphrasing here) that the station didn’t get involved with MyNetworkTV for nothing. MyNetworkTV is the tiny, failing broadcast network owned by FOX.

Not that the A’s are performing well ratings-wise against Dr. Phil, but this would certainly explain why KRON wouldn’t pursue a lengthy deal with the A’s. KTVU could be in serious trouble if they lose FOX, as they’d become just another independent station with few prospects (yes, I’m including MyNetworkTV). Longtime news anchor Dennis Richmond is retiring next spring, which would put the KTVU news operation in a similar position to, well, what KRON is in right now. KTVU is not owned by FOX. It’s owned by Cox Communications, which has long resisted FOX’s offers to buy and fostered a sense of autonomy for KTVU. Among the shows of autonomy: KTVU has in the past used CNN national video instead of FOX News, and it still partners with CNN on its website. KTVU is the only one of the Bay Area’s four major network stations that is not owned by the parent network. Should KTVU lose FOX to KRON, could it provide an opening for the A’s? We’ll see.

Meanwhile in Santa Clara, rising costs and limited sources of funding put the project underfunded by $51 million. The key appears to be the city’s preference not to give up development rights to some key parcels of land north of the stadium site (quotes from Assistant City Manager Ron Garratt):

Revenue from land leases “is the one significant revenue source in the general fund that is locally controlled,” he said in an interview. “The state can’t come in and take it; the county can’t touch it. It’s critical. It’s 10 percent of the general fund now and it’s projected to grow somewhat higher.”

The proposal calls for a large amount of gameday revenues being routed toward debt service. However, there are no plans for a land lease payment from the 49ers for the stadium land. It’s unclear how the $51 million gap would be bridged. The team indicated that they or the NFL may be able to raise additional money. For their sake I hope so since the city says it’s tapped out at their stated $136 million contribution.

Nearby hotels are positive about a plan to create a Mello-Roos district that would levy an additional occupancy tax, helping to fund the stadium. Many of those hotels are also interested in becoming the hotel of choice for visiting teams, so there’s some direct benefit there. The backup site, or bus/overflow lot, is looking more and more like the best site with each passing day.

The humorous part of it was the list of demands submitted by Cedar Fair, operator of Great America. Cedar Fair wants to be compensated for the 4 days of lost revenue every year when they’ll have to close the park because of conflicts with football games. They also are demanding control of all parking revenues from all events at the stadium. Good luck with that. Does anyone else find it odd that two companies from Ohio are duking it out over the fate of a Bay Area-based team?

Messing around with TV

Over the last few weeks, I’ve finally taken the plunge into HDTV. The geek in me won’t go about it the normal way, so I’ve been looking at more than just TV’s. As much as I like TiVo I couldn’t justify laying out cash for yet another monthly subscription, so I decided to find out what TiVo alternatives were available. In the end I went with a neat little product called HDHomeRun from Livermore company Silicondust. It has two digital tuners that pick up free digital feeds from either cable or over-the-air. Those feeds are sent into your home network and can be streamed or recorded by any computer on the network. Not every channel comes through free and unencrypted. Most of the major cable networks are encrypted and require a cable box. YMMV but it’s worked well so far for me.

Apparently the Giants have also been messing around with TV. Last week the Giants bought a sizable stake in FSN Bay Area, which will put them in excellent financial shape for the next 25 years. The details:

  • The team bought a 30% stake, which comes out both the Comcast and FOX stakes. Comcast now owns 45%, while FOX has 25%.
  • Giants games will continue to be broadcast on the channel, which will officially benamed Comcast SportsNet before the season starts.
  • CSN will show at least 130 Giants games now that the Giants’ deal with KNTV has a reduced schedule compared to KTVU.
  • Existing agreements with the A’s, Warriors, and Sharks will be unchanged (those run through the end of the decade).
  • CSN will produce a nightly local sports newscast. It already produces Sportsnite for the existing CSN West channel, which is geared towards the Central Valley currently. It’s not clear whether the new CSN channel will have a specific Bay Area focus or if it will be merged with CSN West (which is partly owned by the Maloof brothers).

The Giants picked a good time to work this deal out. It gets them a nice new stream of revenue, which along with the $100 million stake in the channel, will raise the team’s value significantly. It should be easier to work with sponsors who will now know that the Giants have a 25-year run of stability behind it. And while it hasn’t been mentioned yet, should Peter Magowan and his group decide to divest themselves of the team, they could get upwards of $600 million for the franchise.

What about the A’s?
If you think the A’s have been left out in the cold, they aren’t. Right now the broadcasting world is in a major state of flux, with the digital conversion coming in February 2009 and AT&T starting to offer rival services that rival Comcast’s cable TV, the rules are quickly going to change.

Let’s say the A’s wanted to start their own cable sports network. There a couple rules they’d have to follow in order to get started:

  • If you want to be carried by Comcast, you must give them a taste. Like Tony Soprano dealing with his capos, Comcast wants their envelope. That’s means Comcast wants a piece of whatever new channel you’re launching. They’ll help you get production going. If you want to go it alone, good luck getting any help from them. Note: When scanning for my local free channels, several networks I didn’t expect to find were available: Vs., TVOne, and Comcast SportsNet West. All three are partly or wholly owned by Comcast. If FSNBA becomes CSN West, CSNW won’t be free for long.
  • Don’t ask to be on expanded basic. Comcast is pushing all new sports networks to their “digital sports tier.” A legacy network such as FSNBA or ESPN/ESPN2 will stay on expanded basic, but everything else is meant for the sports tier. That goes for national single-sport networks such as NFL Network and NBATV, as well as new regional sports networks. Part of the reasoning is that Comcast doesn’t want to pass along the often high subscriber fees to regular customers who may not be interested in additional sports networks (they also frequently complain about rising cable bills). Another is that by relegating a RSN to a digital channel, it takes up far less bandwidth than an analog basic channel.
  • The satellite companies won’t offer any favors either. DirecTV and Dish are feeling the pinch as they have to carry hundreds more channels simultaneously than the typical regional cable operator. They’ll carry your channel as long as you don’t ask for overly exhorbitant fees.

As you can see, right now isn’t exactly the best time for the A’s to start getting entrepreneurial. At least not in TV land. However, change is afoot.

The Digital TV Transition
On February 17, 2009, all US broadcasters are supposed to switch over from analog to completely digital transmissions. Many consumers won’t really notice as they may already have their TV served up to them by some kind of set top box (cable or satellite). That old “cable-ready” TV you may have put in the garage? Or that trusty 4″ portable deal you bought several years ago to bring to sporting events? Those will be useless.

Over-the-air broadcasts will be digital, and to help the government is helping by subsidizing $1 billion in new digital set top boxes for viewers who only get over-the-air TV. Digital broadcasts are more bandwidth-efficient than analog, so the government is reclaiming some of that bandwidth for other uses. You may have heard recently about the 700 MHz wireless spectrum auction, scheduled for this coming January. Verizon, Google, and Cox are among several bidders for certain pieces of spectrum, which could carry voice and data faster and more reliably than existing networks. The 700 MHz spectrum has been used by OTA channels 52-69.

For cable, the process may be a little slower as some cable providers are preparing to keep at least a few analog stations (the regular broadcast networks) alive for a little longer depending on customer response. Cable operators are mandated to carry both analog and digital signals for the time being, an extension of “must-carry” rules. As the old analog channels are replaced completely by digital (including HDTV), bandwidth will be freed up. Some of that bandwidth is slated for video-on-demand services and more HD channels, some will be used for higher-speed internet access. (AT&T’s U-verse service is IP-based and is far different from what Comcast or Verizon provide.)

Within all of that freed bandwidth should be additional space for a combo SD/HD regional sports network, should the A’s decide to launch one.

Still need a partner
Even with all of that, an A’s-based regional sports network won’t be viable unless there’s additional programming. To get that, they’ll need to look south to San Jose, and the Sharks. The A’s and Sharks are in similar positions relative to the local TV market. They perform worse than other teams that broadcast during the same season (A’s vs. Giants, Sharks vs. Warriors). Both will be catering heavily to a Silicon Valley corporate base. Both have limited radio deals and are disadvantaged in the local media market compared to the other Bay Area teams. Chronologically they are the youngest franchises in the Bay Area. And their seasons are compatible, with the A’s regular season ending when the Sharks’ season starts (and vice-versa). Quakes 4.0 will be an integral piece, and their summer schedule isn’t so heavy as to cause frequent conflicts.

The teams can’t stop there. There are tons of other teams in the area and no one needs to look under rocks to find them. Did you know that CSN West and the St. Mary’s men’s basketball team have been expanding their broadcasting deal the last three years? That there are dozens of great high school football rivalries that don’t get the regional recognition they deserve because of meager coverage?

The A’s recently re-upped with KICU for 3 years. The deal probably isn’t much to sneeze at, but that’s fine because the market will truly open up at the turn of the decade. Once it does, the A’s need to be poised to strike. There’ll be a window of opportunity for their own media independence, but that window won’t be open forever.

All quiet on the Fremont front

Apologies for not having a post in the past couple weeks, everyone. Honestly, not much has happened with the A’s regarding the stadium matters. The environmental consultant was approved as part of a consent vote with other items on 11/27. The city council session still ran 4+ hours, most of it devoted to a single agenda item: a development at I-680 and Auto Mall/Durham called Sabercat Center. The project faced vigorous opposition from residents of the Mission San Jose neighborhood, many of whom have homes a stone’s throw away from the project site. Despite the seemingly endless stream of residents opposed to Sabercat Center, the council approved the project 4-1 anyway. Is that foreshadowing for Cisco Field? Probably not, because the two main criticisms of Sabercat Center were its vertical orientation (far different from the SFR’s that dominate the area) and its location literally on top of the Hayward fault. Immediate NIMBY concerns don’t really affect Cisco Field as it’s across I-880 from any nearby residence. It’s also a good two miles from the Hayward fault, slightly less than the distance from the Coliseum to the same fault. In any case, nothing’s happening until after the New Year.

The holidays haven’t halted everyone’s work.

  • Newark is debating the fate of a parcel at its southern edge near Pacific Commons. Plans for the land known as “Area 3” and “Area 4” include residential development and a golf course. Like Cisco Field, the key is rezoning of land currently zoned industrial. Unlike Cisco Field, some of the project land is wetlands, which means additional wetlands creation will be required.
  • The moribund 49ers just hired Andy Dolich to be their COO, while Jed York may been crowned owner/king of Ninerland. Meanwhile, it appears a hotel tax may be what helps raise the public portion of the 49ers stadium bill. Nearby hotel operators (Hilton, Marriott) are on board based on initial quotes.
  • The Tampa Bay Rays are looking at their downtown St. Petersburg spring training site as a future permanent home. The new ballpark would be a waterfront, open-air facility with a retractable roof that would deploy like a sail, protecting fans from rain (but not heat, though concourses would be air-conditioned). Financing would come from the Rays, proceeds from the sale of dev rights at the team’s current home, Tropicana Field, and other public sources. Eerie resemblance of the mast structure to a similar (and failed) concept at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium aside, the design is quite cool. Part of Tampa Bay would have to be filled in.
  • Miami pols have unveiled a massive, expansive redevelopment plan that would incorporate the new Marlins stadium at the site of the to-be-demolished Orange Bowl, along with a co-located, 25,000-seat soccer stadium, museums and a tunnel. It’ll take a public vote, a stepped-up contribution from the Marlins, and the Marlins building a 6,000-space parking garage for the plan to work.

Oh yeah, some report was released as well. Which leads to the self-explanatory new poll item on the right.