What Houston Lost to Finally Get the Rockets and Astros on TV Again
Most of Houston didn't get to see Bill Doleman (left) and Calvin Murphy (right) together on CSN's Rockets studio show, and now they never will.
For two years, Comcast SportsNet viewers had sarcastically needled Bill Doleman, asking him why he didn't dress more like his Houston Rockets studio show co-host, Calvin Murphy, whose flamboyant suits crashed nightly through every barrier of sartorial subtlety at warp speed.
So it was appropriate, Doleman thought, in their final Comcast SportsNet broadcast together on October 22, for him to finally accede to the wishes of the masses, paying homage to his partner, but doing so in the most respectful way possible, donning a replica of Murphy's red number 23 Rockets jersey during a tearful seven-minute farewell.
Two years ago, with the launch of CSN Houston, Doleman and Murphy had been placed together on Rockets studio duty sight unseen. Doleman, like most CSN on-air talent, was brand-new to Houston, and Murphy had been in television exile for a number of years due in part to issues in his personal life.
Two years later, not only had their show been nominated for multiple regional Emmys, but Doleman and Muprhy had become close friends.
"We went from partners to friends to family. I got the opportunity to work with you, to know your girls, to fall in love with your girls," Murphy told Doleman. "As soon as I came back [to television] and saw you were my drum major, I knew the band was going to play."
Doleman called his time with Murphy the "greatest assignment of [his] career," and the two closed their last show together with a heartfelt on-air embrace.
It was a scene that in many ways was a microcosm of CSN Houston as a whole on that somber night of October 22. That's how a number of the shows ended that day, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes.
They ended with hugs, tears and gratitude for friendships developed, for this would be the final day at CSN Houston for dozens of talented hosts, journalists and production people, as the network begins its bankruptcy-fueled transition from joint ownership among CSN, the Rockets and the Astros to the AT&T/DirecTV-owned Root Sports.
If you were looking for the true casualties in the two-year failure of CSN Houston to achieve its distribution goals, here they were, the nearly 100 employees whose professional lives were getting steamrolled under a pile of legal bills and bankruptcy law, all playing out right there on television for 40 percent of Houston to see.
And that's been the problem all along, that number. Forty percent. Eventually, to survive, you need the other 60 percent of the city to be able to see you.
Since its launch in October 2012, CSN Houston has been unable to secure carriage agreements with most of the major cable and satellite providers outside of Comcast. Providers such as AT&T, DirecTV and Dish Network have refused to cave to what they see as excessive subscriber fee demands, leaving that aforementioned 60 percent of the city unable to watch the Rockets, the Astros, the Dynamo and the rest of CSN Houston's critically acclaimed content.
In most circles, the blame for the network's inflexibility on carriage fees is directed at Astros owner Jim Crane. Crane purchased the Astros and the team's piece of ownership in CSN Houston from Drayton McLane back in 2011 for more than $600 million, a purchase price that was driven by, in retrospect, inaccurate estimates of the demand for and worth of the network. Crane eventually sued McLane and Comcast for fraud in a case that remains open to this day.
Ownership factions operating under different financial needs would seem to be a recipe for failure, and certainly this was a factor in the Astros/Rockets joint ownership of CSN. Crane's Astros compete in a world where local television rights are proportionally far more of a revenue lifeblood than they are in the NBA's world, where teams are buoyed by massive national television agreements with ABC/ESPN and Turner. Consequently, owner Les Alexander and the Rockets were far more willing to agree to lower carriage fees with non-Comcast television service providers just to get Rockets broadcasts into the homes of the "other 60 percent."
Eventually, the labyrinth of stalemates, internal and external, among the network's owners and the cable and satellite providers drove CSN Houston into bankruptcy in September 2013. The Comcast regional sports network model that had proven to be so lucrative in markets like Chicago, D.C., the Bay Area, pretty much everywhere else, was officially a financial train wreck in Houston.
Pending all approvals, the solution will be a court-approved joint sale of the network to AT&T and DirecTV, with Rockets and Astros games to be carried on a channel called Root Sports Houston.
To the teams, this means that they will take a painful short-term hit in forfeiting their stake in the network (which is now worth far less than originally forecast at its inception in 2010) and forfeiting the rights fees still owed to them for the last couple seasons (more than $100 million each for the Astros and the Rockets).
However, the teams are taking the financial hit in order to rebuild the long-term goodwill that comes with getting their games back on the air in more viewers' homes.
"We are excited to get the games on as quickly as we can," said Rockets CEO Tad Brown. "We want to make sure our team is seen by the fans and every-one in the market. We have great players, engaging players, and we want to make sure they have an opportunity to watch our guys."
And at the very least, the fans will get that. With Root Sports Houston, they will get to see their teams again.
They will get Bill Worrell, Matt Bullard and Clyde Drexler on the call for Rockets games. They will get Bill Brown, Alan Ashby and Geoff Blum on the call for Astros games. They will get to see the games in their own homes without having to go to a bar or risking the inadvertent download of some exotic virus by illegally streaming the games.
But what else will the fans of Houston get? If you visit the Root Sports website, you see that they have affiliates in Pittsburgh, Seattle and the Rocky Mountains. You also see that Root Sports touts itself as "the nation's premier regional sports network providing a unique and special experience for local fans."
However, if you browse the program guide for their affiliates, you get a much different picture. The content consists largely of game broadcasts, paid programming and replays of The Dan Patrick Show. If you were a CSN Houston subscriber, browsing the Root Sports program guide knowing this is what's coming, is like finding out your company's annual meeting just got moved from Las Vegas to Toledo.
CSN Houston's strength was in its content, as evidenced by the network's 16 Emmy nominations this past year. As on Root and other RSNs, the games most certainly were the foundation at CSN Houston.
However, unlike Root, CSN Houston had a lineup flush with unique, localized specialty shows that gave Houston viewers more insight and choices on their local pro, college, and high school sports in the last two years than they'd had in the previous 20.
Sports Talk Live was a daily talk show on which local media debated the topics of the day. SportsNet Central was a nightly SportsCenter-style show that devoted literally hours daily to the local sports scene. My Life was a fascinating long-form interview show with Houston legends such as Earl Campbell and John Lucas. High schools and smaller colleges had capable CSN Houston resources devoted to covering their games.
Houston fans who were able to see CSN Houston will lose these things. Houston fans who never had CSN Houston will miss having ever seen them. In short, CSN Houston provided a viewing experience a city like Houston deserves in 2014. It was the stretch limo to what many fear will be Root Sports's Uber. And now it's gone.
The final broadcast on CSN Houston in the form its loyal viewers had come to know it, with its stacked lineup of talented journalists, was the 10 p.m. edition of SportsNet Central on October 22.
On that night, the hosts were two of the network's most recognizable faces, Kelli Johnson and Steve Bunin. Johnson left a position with CSN's successful operation in the D.C. area and Bunin left a prominent on-air spot on ESPN to join CSN's fledgling operation in Houston.
After the show ended, many of the CSN Houston employees spent their final evening together at a farewell gathering at a bar across the street, where it felt a little like the series finale of a niche sitcom in which you watch all the characters go their separate ways.
Texans reporter James Palmer was heading to Colorado to spend some down time with his family before moving on to his next chapter. Several folks were hopeful of landing work at one of CSN's thriving affiliates around the country. Life will go on.
Kevin Eschenfelder, host of Sports Talk Live, is one of the handful who will be retained by Root Sports, likely handling studio duties for the Rockets and Astros.
"This is the most talented group I've worked with," Eschenfelder said. "The best that's ever been assembled in Houston."
So now Eschenfelder and the other CSN holdovers await their next set of marching orders and anticipate meeting another new boss, and soon enough most of that other 60 percent of Houston will finally get what they've been angrily demanding. They will get to see the Rockets and the Astros in the comfort of their living rooms.
Unfortunately, they don't realize that they could have had so much more.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanCablinasian or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.