How the CSN Houston Broadcast Map Dooms the Network

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It was just a little over 30 days ago that Houston Astros owner Jim Crane said he wanted the CSN Houston matter settled within 30 days. That didn't happen.

The parties still await a ruling from a Judge Lynn Hughes on the Astros appeal of Judge Marvin Isgur's ruling that put the network into bankruptcy. Judge Isgur, the bankruptcy judge assigned this case, still makes the necessary rulings that are keeping the network on the air and the employees and vendors compensated. The Astros and Rockets are still not being paid the dollars due to them under their media rights deals with the network. Additionally, at some point Judge Isgur will make a ruling as to whether he has jurisdiction over the fraud suit filed by Crane against Comcast and former Astros owner Drayton McLane. (For those really interested, there is a status conference before Judge Isgur schedule for June 12).

Spokesmen for DirecTV, AT&T, and SuddenLink reiterated last week that while they would like to carry the network, the amount requested by CSN Houston is too much and not in the best interest of the company owners and their subscribers. Thus time passes, and the network remains unavailable to most of the city/state/country. Jobs and livelihoods remain in jeopardy, and companies worry about whether they'll ever be paid all their owed by CSN Houston.

The populace is sick of the whole matter and has basically placed a pox on all houses. But while the proceedings drag along, perhaps it's time to revisit what is perhaps the main issue preventing the network from achieving full carriage: the size of the CSN Houston broadcast footprint.

The footprint of CSN Houston encompasses more than the Houston area. It includes the entire state of Texas, Oklahoma, and parts of New Mexico, Arkansas, and Louisiana. It's the same footprint established years earlier by Fox Sports Southwest, and it uses the same boundaries defined by MLB as the home territory for the Astros -- those areas in which MLB games are blacked out on the Extra Innings and MLB.TV packages.

It's a huge footprint, and one the Astros, one of the network owners, wants very much to keep. But there's a slight problem. The NBA defines its markets a bit differently. It divides Texas into three markets split between the Rockets, Spurs, and Mavericks. The state of Oklahoma gets the Thunder, and to Louisiana goes the Pelicans. While Astros games can air over the entire footprint, the Rockets are essentially limited to a sliver of the map along the coast of Texas -- even with games airing on a different regional sports network than that of the Mavericks or Spurs, Rockets games may not be broadcast into their territory -- unlike with MLB where the Astros and Rangers share the map and can air in the other's market.

Thus the statements from DirecTV saying it's not fair to make the people of San Antonio pay for a product (the Rockets) they can't watch. There has been discussion in the past about CSN Houston adopting tiered-pricing that would have the people in the outer regions pay less for the network than those in Houston, and there was supposedly some talk that the Astros were amenable to this. But that aside, why would, why should people in El Paso be required to subsidize a network with a primary focus on sports centered on Houston and the immediate area around Houston?

For it's faults -- a Dallas-centric focus -- Fox Sports Southwest is able to offer continuous programming to most of its map that features the pro teams that have been assigned to that market by the leagues. So El Paso gets to watch Phoenix Suns games. Laredo gets the Spurs, Tulsa the Thunder. All markets get the Rangers and the Dallas Stars, and a steady diet of Big 12 sports. But CSN Houston can offer only the Astros, Dynamo, select C-USA, AAC, and Southland Conference college events while the Rockets are blacked out for most of the footprint.

The Astros essentially need carriage by all providers across the entire network for there to be a chance at economic success. And the network needs to be on the same basic cable channel tier as the ESPN stable of networks, the Turner Networks, Fox Sports Net, the NFL Network, and the MLB Network, but it can't offer the reach and depth of programming as those networks. ESPN was able to get carriage for The Longhorn Network by offering it at a very-low cost, and with the costs for carriage of the other ESPN networks subsidizing its losses -- FOX had to do much of the same thing to get carriage for Fox Sports 1. But there is no other affiliated network that can make up for offering CSN Houston at a highly-discounted price or that could be used to leverage a provider into carrying the network on a basic tier.

CSN Houston offers an ill-advised, poorly-conceived network footprint that makes absolutely zero sense for its product. Yet the Catch-22 is that, for the network to come close to any success, it needs carriage across this entire nonsensically designed footprint at non-highly discounted carriage rates to come close to success. The result is bankruptcy, lawsuits, fans in the core of the market who are shut out from viewing, and worse, the loss of interest of the casual fan.

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