Because January is exam time in many colleges, it's only fitting to report the first flunking grade. It goes to the Atlantic Coast Conference's new pay-TV basketball package. Season Ticket, which has proved to be a ducat to disaster. Nobody's buying it, the area's populace is stomping mad, and now here come de judges, ordering that pay-TV games in their locales be shown for free. There is so much controversy, in fact, that at week's end the producers were thinking seriously of taking the entire package off the air.
"This has been a marketing failure and a public-relations fiasco," says Virginia athletic director Dick Schultz. Adds David Hudson, a cable operator in Reidsville, N.C., where 37 of a potential 4,500 subscribers have signed up: "I'd like to see us all boycott this thing if it's ever offered again."
Part of the problem is the inequitable manner in which the 21-game Season Ticket package is shown on cable systems. In 1982 the ACC sold its pay-TV rights through 1984-85 for $2 million to Charlotte-based Raycom Sports, Inc. Before this season began, Raycom cut a deal with ESPN in which 38 games were to be carried nationwide on ESPN's basic cable signal except in the ACC area. In the ACC, 17 of those games were already scheduled for over-the-air stations and the other 21 would be available to ESPN subscribers if they paid not only their basic cable fee but also from $50 to $75 extra. The subscribers would need a decoding device to unscramble the signal, sometimes at a further additional charge. The rest of the ESPN audience would see either snow or reruns of previous games.
Another problem is that Season Ticket games are a supplement to the many ACC games already being shown on "free" TV in the Carolinas. Virginia. Maryland, Georgia and Washington, D.C. Raycom and Jefferson-Pilot Teleproductions, partners in the pay-TV venture, also are paying the ACC $18 million over three years for a 38-game package on the over-the-air stations. Then there are the eight ACC games that NBC televises and the four CBS puts on. With so many freebies, who's going to pay dearly for 21 more games? As it turns out, almost no one.
Season Ticket's stats are so bad it's astonishing. Raycom and ESPN offered the deal to 120 cable systems in the Carolinas, Virginia, Maryland and Atlanta; 70 operators, representing a potential of 600,000 homes, signed up. ESPN expected a modest "five to seven percent" of these homes to subscribe, says Raycom's president, Rick Ray. By last week Raycom had "between 2,000 and 3,000," according to a spokesman, or less than 0.5%. The record for futility goes to Giles CATV of Narrows, Va. Among 1,323 homes, it has one subscriber to Season Ticket. "I hope ESPN loses its shirt on this," says Bill Day of Warner Cable in Hampton, Va. "From a business point of view, it's wrong. They're putting a pay service on a basic service. What's next? Football?"
Two weeks ago the "Wilmington Three"—fans named Alley Hart, George Chadwick and Billy Mason—won a preliminary injunction in federal district court in Wilmington, N.C., prohibiting the local cable system from blacking out Season Ticket games. Says Hart, who was a backcourt mate of CBS analyst Billy Packer on Wake Forest's '61 ACC championship team: "It's a moral issue as well as a legal issue. We have to pay extra to get ESPN's regular programming that's going to the other 90 percent of the country for free. It isn't fair." By last week, other district courts had ordered the blackouts lifted elsewhere in North Carolina as well as in Lynchburg, Va. "The courts have basically stolen our property," protests ESPN executive vice-president Roger Werner.
Ray and Werner profess optimism over the long-term future of pay-TV in the ACC, but know they must be patient. Meanwhile, some obvious lessons:
If pay-TV for college sports doesn't work in the gloriously successful ACC, where will it work? My feeling is that many more schools are going to reach for that pot of gold at the end of the pay-TV rainbow in the next few years and find it contains goldfish.
And, as for the public at large, if ACC fans work up a lather over 21 additional games being shown on pay-TV while the great majority of games remain on "free" TV, imagine the outcry when the World Series or Super Bowl heads over the hill. Richard Nixon could make a political comeback on that issue alone.