Could Astros fans in New Mexico prevent people in Houston from watching the Rockets this season? Could Houstonians have been viewing this whole CSN Houston carriage problem from the wrong angle? Is it really only a matter of money? Could the difference in NBA and MLB regional TV maps be the ultimate culprit behind the lack of Houston sports on most Houston-area television sets?
With the signing of Dwight Howard by the Rockets, it was thought that deals between CSN Houston and the non-Comcast cable/satellite providers would soon follow. But last week brought a spate of bad news. SNL Kagan, a media research firm, issued a report predicting that deals are still years away for subscribers to Suddenlink and Direct TV, stating that there's no timetable for a deal with U-verse, and to expect no deal ever with Dish Network.
SNL Kagan also projected a negative cash flow of nearly $200 million over the first three years of the network. It also estimated that subscriber fees, which were about $2.80 per month when the network launched, would be $4.17 a month by 2017. ("The SNL Kagan report cited makes several questionable declarations that we feel are meritless," a CSN Houston spokesman told the Houston Press. "That said, we will not comment on the network's financial position.")
This was followed by Friday's story from David Barron at the Chronicle rehashing these concerns, noting that Astros ratings are at record low levels and reiterating U-verse's contention that viewer interest is so low that it's not worried about losing subscribers because of no Astros on television. Barron notes once again that CSN Houston is a losing proposition that continues to fall short of revenue projections. There's further discussion of the dispute over rates between CSN Houston and the parties. It's a pretty depressing read, and leads one to wonder if Houston's on its way to becoming the next Portland.
(CSN Houston also disputes the lack of viewer interest. "While we cannot share exact numbers, Rockets and Astros games have consistently drawn high viewership and stronger ratings than their counterparts in Dallas. Rockets and Astros games have significant viewership that will only get stronger as the teams move to contender status.")
But there's a bit buried in the story that might provide a pathway for how the Astros and Rockets might someday return to television. If the issue of the conflicting NBA and MLB TV maps can be settled.
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The Fox Sports Southwest regional map hit five states -- Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas and New Mexico. And it's this footprint that CSN Houston is attempting to replicate for the Astros because MLB rules allow for the Astros to have a truly regional network across that area. But except for a sliver of Texas and Louisiana, NBA rules prohibit the Rockets games from airing throughout the rest of the areas of CSN Houston's projected regional map, including big ratings markets like Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin-San Antonio, New Orleans and Oklahoma City.
The thinking is that the Dwight Howard acquisition would boost the demand for CSN Houston, but the reality seems to be that NBA rules are capping that demand and limiting it to just a small sliver of CSN Houston's projected and desired footprint. Which leads to these questions: Are the Astros' desires for viewers in New Mexico worth keeping the Rockets off of televisions in Houston? Is CSN Houston requesting the same subscriber fee for televisions in Lubbock that they're requesting for Houston? And if CSN Houston isn't, if it is requesting substantially lower rates for the non-Houston areas of the footprint, then is pinching pennies out in Amarillo by the providers really worth angering, inconveniencing and disregarding fans in the Houston area?
So there's not much movement, but the fact that the emphasis seems to be on the rates for the outer non-Rockets markets has to be seen as some improvement. Right? Maybe it's as simple as the Astros and CSN Houston sacrificing some of its hoped-for regional market in order to improve the chances of the Rockets getting on the air, and once the Rockets are actually on throughout Houston, it's just as simple as the network showing what it can do, then setting up an expansion. Or maybe it's just as simple as the providers biting the bullet and spending those few extra pennies that'll let Astros games reach the edge of its former Fox Sports Southwest footprint.
But the end, if it ever does come, will probably be right before the Rockets season tips off. And the losers will continue to be the viewers in Houston because despite the thinking of some, the people of this region shouldn't be forced to become customers of the horror that is Comcast, giving up the superior customer service and performance of the other providers just to see the Astros lose a game 4-2 despite surrendering just one hit. Then again, if this whole CSN Houston standoff continues, the Astros will probably have no more than one viewer by the end of the season.