The Austin Chronicle

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Countdown to Kickoff

The new Longhorn Network debuts this week, but good luck finding it

By Richard Whittaker, August 26, 2011, Screens

The eyes of Texas will soon be upon the Longhorn Network – that is, if they can find a cable provider to carry it.

With the "all University of Texas, all the time" network launching on Aug. 26, staff at the ESPN-backed venture are prepping their new studios on the old Concordia University campus. For a multimillion-dollar operation merging two massive sporting brands, it feels like a work in progress. The fifth-floor offices have no ceiling, the signs on the doors are paper held up with tape, and the main sound stage – part corporate board room, part sports-fan den – still smells of freshly cut timber. The whole thing is temporary. Downstairs, engineers are finishing out the ground floor, which will become the network's permanent home. However, with five editing bays, a growing tape library, and a 12-seat control room, the network is ready to start broadcasting, ceilings and distribution issues notwithstanding.

The project was supposed to be an easy sell, netting UT $300 million over the next 20 years. UT President Bill Powers said he expects $5 million a year in "financial support for important academic initiatives," and allocated funds to endow new chairs in Art and Art History, Communication, Philosophy, and Physics. Other schools are looking at similar revenue models – on Aug. 15, UT's fellow Big 12 team Kansas State announced K-StateHD.TV, an online subscription service – but the sheer scale of the Longhorn Network seems to come with particular problems. As of one week before the launch, only one cable carrier – Houston's EnTouch – had signed up. While the network would obviously like to be in more homes before the cameras roll, the real deadline may be Sept. 3, when UT football starts its regular season with a home game against Rice University set to air on the fledgling network. (At press time, word was circulating that the network was close to finalizing a deal with at least one major cable distributor.)

Not that every team is eager for launch day. Rumors connect the network to Texas A&M's move to quit the Big 12 for the SEC, while Texas Tech publicly rejected an offer to have its Nov. 5 game air as UT's second televised matchup. (Tech Chancellor Kent Hance proclaimed, "I don't want a Tech fan to have to give one dime to the Longhorn Network.") Plans to carry high school football collapsed amid fears that it would give UT an unfair recruitment advantage. There were preliminary talks with the University Interscholastic League, but that organization is in a five-year contract with Fox Sports Southwest for tournament coverage. Then on Aug. 11 the NCAA Division I board of directors ruled against allowing any branded college network from carrying high school content. Even UT football coach Mack Brown has some complaints: He granted network cameras access to training sessions and will personally host three shows (Game Plan With Mack Brown, Rewind With Mack Brown, and the Mack Brown Radio Show), but he has rumbled that it just complicates his job. Network Vice President of Production Stephanie Druley said defining the exact working relationship between ESPN and UT will take some time. So is this a news outlet or a fan club? Druley explained that, while she will not be "a mouthpiece" for UT Athletics, "I'm in business with them."

But this is not the Longhorn Football Network, or even the Longhorn Sports Network: Under the terms of its contract, 10% of all content must be nonathletic. In a statement, the Longhorn Network said that it is "soliciting input and ideas from the University to highlight various academic programs," including faculty and distinguished speaker lecture series. Hawk Mendenhall, KUT's associate director, said that the NPR affiliate is in preliminary conversations with the network, and there may be potential for broadcasting music from the Cactus Cafe. Another obvious partner would be the Department of Radio-Television-Film: After all, they were almost neighbors. Before picking its off-campus location, the network eyed real estate in the Jesse H. Jones Communication Center (see "Game Changer," Feb. 25) until the Communications Department cried foul on losing valuable studios and teaching space. RTF Department Chair Paul Stekler said there have been early talks about sharing existing content, but that has all been overshadowed by getting ready for the football season. As for new opportunities like internships, he said, "Long-term stuff is going to happen once they're up and running and settled."

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