Countdown to the Big Ten: Q&A with BTN President Mark Silverman
Editor's note: This is the third in a series of 10 N-Sider columns that will count down Nebraska's journey to become an official member of the Big Ten Conference on July 1, 2011. This column focuses on Mark Silverman, the president of the Big Ten Network. The Countdown to the Big Ten series will culminate with an N-Sider on Big Ten Conference Commissioner Jim Delany on July 1st.
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Q: As president of the Big Ten Network, how excited are you to have Nebraska as the league's 12th member, and what are you doing to welcome the Huskers into the conference?
A: We're thrilled with how the expansion worked out. Nebraska is such a great fit. I don't think we could have added a university that, number one, fits better within the Big Ten and what it's all about. Nebraska obviously has great tradition and pride in its programs and in its support. I've been to Lincoln five times now, and I can just tell you that there's such a philosophy there - that you compete as strongly as you possibly can, but you do it respectfully and treat everyone else with respect - at a level I don't see in other conferences. Nebraska excels, but in a way that all of the other schools in our league can be proud of. You see all of those national championships and all of those loyal season ticketholders, but there's a fabric, I sense, that's consistent with how these other Big Ten universities look at themselves. How you compete is often more important than how well you compete. I think as Nebraska fans learn more about other Big Ten universities, they're going to see how important that is to the conference they will join on July 1. (See PDF Nebraska Weekend Schedule at the bottom of this column).
We're devoting almost a full day of programming that historic Friday, and we encourage everyone in the Big Ten Network area to tune in and see what we will now consider some of the greatest games played by our newest conference member. We start at 11 a.m. (CST) and run all the way to midnight, beginning with a one-hour special that will welcome Nebraska into the conference. We will finish the day with Nebraska's win over Peyton Manning and Tennessee in the 1998 Orange Bowl. We have other features that day from the 1994 and 1995 national championship teams. We will continue to honor Nebraska through the weekend, replaying the original content several times on Saturday and Sunday and adding in Nebraska's 2006 NCAA Championship volleyball win over Stanford (at 11 a.m. and 10:30 p.m. CST Saturday, July 2, and 2:30 a.m. Sunday, July 3). We're also featuring the 2005 Nebraska baseball team that won its first game in the College World Series (1:30 p.m. Sunday). Nebraska's 2010 football win over Missouri will be shown Sunday right before the 90-minute baseball show. We hope Nebraska fans feel properly welcomed into the conference that weekend.
Q: Of course, the Hall-of-Fame coach from those three national championship teams (1994, 1995, 1997) that were part of the greatest five-year run in college football history (60-3 from 1993-97) is finishing his fourth year as Nebraska's athletic director. Do you mind sharing any personal experiences you may have had with Tom Osborne?
A: Sometimes, I almost have to take a second glance to realize I'm sitting there working with Tom Osborne. I mean, he is definitely a living legend in the collegiate sports world. It's funny. There are Big Ten coaching legends, but obviously you're also talking about a United States Congressman and a current athletic director in addition to a Hall-of-Fame head football coach. Tom is someone you just know is so respected. I saw him in meetings with our athletic directors. He carries himself with such dignity. He's just someone who when he communicates, it's valued. With all of these issues on the horizon, we know he's been there. We know he has a level head, and he's someone who can really evaluate the best way to go forward. With so many different ideas that can be contemplated and evaluated, he's just going to be a great resource for the conference. His knowledge and his experience as a head coach, a Congressman and an athletic director will bring so much interesting and relevant perspective to big decisions that need to be made. The Big Ten is a conference that is always trying to stay ahead of the game, and his will be a great voice in helping to make those decisions. He's very insightful and easily could have been a corporate executive if he had chosen to do so. I've definitely taken away several things already on my limited dealings with him. For me, it's a great benefit to be able to work with someone like him.
Q: I know Nebraska is not officially a member of the Big Ten yet, but countless Husker fans are wondering what's going on in terms of BTN distribution this fall. Can you give us a quick update on that?
A: We have certain deals in place that are what they are. Of course, we're seeking broader distribution in the state of Nebraska. We're looking to be carried in Nebraska the same way we are in all of the other Big Ten states, and we look continually to be added where we're not yet available. The one market on cable that we hope to get added real soon is Los Angeles. It's an area we hoped to launch last year. It's really an issue of the system having enough bandwidth to include our network. We're available anywhere the satellite companies and the telco (telephone) companies are. In cable, once we get L.A., we will be available in all of the top 25 media markets in the country. We're hoping that happens by this fall.
Q: Give us your hopes and aspirations to get your issues resolved in the state of Nebraska.
A: The shorthand is the network does not own rights to Nebraska home games at the present time. We've been assured that we will obtain those rights once the major cable satellite providers in Nebraska carry the Big Ten Network in a comparable manner as they do in all of the other Big Ten states that are already subscribers. Once they do that, then the network will be able to air every game. But until then, the network will not have those rights.
Q: After visiting Lincoln five times, what's your impression of Nebraska's facilities both now and in the future?
A: In a word, fantastic. I think Nebraska is at the top of the conference. A couple schools in this conference have just phenomenal facilities, and Nebraska is right up in there with them. Nebraska's facilities are so impressive. And none of us really had any idea what all was there until we saw them. You know, that's an important thing for a network. Having that kind of infrastructure makes televising events that much easier. We were all just blown away with the level of sophistication of everything. The people who work at Nebraska are top-notch, and the facilities and the infrastructure are as good as anywhere in the Big Ten, if not better.
Q: I guess it's almost passé to call you the president of the Big Ten Network. Wouldn't you prefer to be called the president of BTN? With the new logo, isn't the full name subservient to the letters BTN?
A: I'm okay saying the president of the Big Ten Network for now. I think there's going to be a little bit of a gradual move toward exclusively using the BTN letters. I think we'll go through this period of time where we'll be BTN or Big Ten Network. Then, we'll be able to just use BTN. For most of the people who have been watching us, BTN has just taken off on its own, mostly in TV listings, and people have picked up on that and started to call us BTN. You rarely have these kinds of organic opportunities for call letters. It's something we are embracing a little bit more because it will help us really broaden our appeal down the road. As we continue expanding distribution throughout the country, even throughout the world, BTN will make us seem a little bigger. It's very common in the cable industry. AMC used to be American Movie Classics. TLC used to be The Learning Channel. We decided to purchase the domain name for BTN this year and will start using it more in the coming months and year, so it will be a nice next step for us.
Q: BTN may not have the cache of CNN or ESPN yet, but hasn't it taken a giant leap in terms of public perception and subscriber base and haven't you exceeded all expectations?
A: We've definitely exceeded some of our expectations, but I was always confident that this network would be very successful because of the content, the programming and the fan base we have to gain distribution. What's exceeded my expectations is this overall impact on the collegiate sports world and the TV world. I knew we would be popular in the Big Ten area, but we have more people watch the network in Texas, Florida, California and New York than in Iowa. It's really become more of a national entity, and it's now being used as a model for other conferences to see what they're going to do. Just having that impact has definitely surprised me. Watching the amount of attention we've received, especially with the distribution challenges our first year, exceeded what I envisioned would happen in the marketplace. We have exceeded expectations in the overall impact that we've had with the schools, and we're doing well financially, so it's been a very rewarding last few years.
Q: I'll be honest. When I was living in Kansas City as a Big 12 Conference fan, it irritated me to see a batch of Big Ten games showing up on my TV set while other major schools across the country were still having their ankles taped. Were those and are those 11 a.m. Big Ten Network kickoffs designed to hijack fans from other conferences across the country to watch yours?
A: No, no, but the question brings a smile to my face. The time slots are all pre-determined. ESPN has been airing games in that noon (EST) time slot for a long time now, and when the conference established the network, part of the negotiation in parallel with ABC and ESPN at the time was for ABC to retain its exclusivity in that late-afternoon window. So our network was never allowed to carry a game at 3:30 ET until this year. It's interesting you bring that up because we're going to experiment this year. We'll have some games on the same noon time slot and some games on at 3:30. We're going to see. It's going to be interesting. What you're raising is a lot of the discussion of trying to project more or less viewership. Later in the day you have more competition, but you also have more people typically watching TV. We've also learned that schools usually like the later start better.
Q: Whatever the strategy, it worked. Give us BTN's elevator pitch for non-subscribers and please be sure to include how many households are available, how many subscribers you have and what might come next.
A: We try to bring more programming that centers around the Big Ten - both live events and original programming - to passionate sports fans and Big Ten fans across the country. We have 45 million subscribers, and we pass 75 million homes.
Q: You have an impressive background with Walt Disney Studios, ESPN and ABC, where you oversaw everything from the Family Channel to Lifetime, A&E and the History Channel. What drew you to become part of the Big Ten vision and lead the charge to do something that had never been done in college athletics?
A: Before my second stint with Disney, I had worked at a sports Internet company which was successful for a short period of time in the late '90s. But that company went the way of a lot of Internet companies when the crash came in 2001. Previously, I had experience developing the ESPN Zone while I was with Disney. I was quite familiar with the sports side as well. When I heard about the network being formed, I was interested. I graduated from a Big Ten school (Michigan), and I'm a big sports fan. I had some Big Ten knowledge. I had some television experience. I had launched new businesses. I was well-versed in the new media side, and I had been on a few boards that TV networks had run and run a couple of networks as well. So I had a lot of different levels of experience, and I think all contributed to my qualifications for the job. Frankly, it was a very challenging start-up phase where we had to get a lot done in a short amount of time and do something that had never really been done before.
Q: What's been your proudest moment as head of BTN?
A: The second we went live to launch the network. We had a launch party that Thursday evening, and we started the countdown to making the switch before it went live. There were a lot of people who worked really, really hard to get that accomplished. Today, we all sort of marvel at how far we've come and how much better the network is. When we launched, a lot of people were skeptical about whether or not it even made sense, let alone would work. But you look at it now. It's had major impact in the landscape. We've come quite a long ways from when we launched four years ago. This is not an easy thing to do. If you're looking for something easy, pick something else. There's a huge payoff and a huge benefit if it works, but there's a question of whether or not it's going to work because it requires just a ton of hard work and planning. Without the support of the conference, the schools and our partners in Fox, it's hard to imagine it being successful.
Q: I knew the viability of BTN in its first Saturday of live coverage - Sept. 1, 2007. The same day I watched Nebraska stomp Nevada, a lot of media in our press box that day were taking breaks to catch Appalachian State's upset of Michigan in the Big House. I'm assuming that game never would have made it on TV without the Big Ten Network. Looking back, wasn't that a credible, but lucky way to get BTN off the launching pad?
A: It sure was. It was a very memorable morning. We were only available on DirecTV and about 40 small operators, mostly in the state of Iowa. We happened to have what many people called the greatest upset in the history of college football on air that morning. It was an amazing game, a back-and-forth game. There was a lot of electricity, and we were jumping (around and extending coverage of the upset). It was a very important, fortunate first game because all of a sudden, it helped make the network viable. A lot of people had been saying that we have a lot of games that nobody cares about, that they don't matter and that they're third-tier matchups. Having a game like that made people rethink what they were thinking about the network.
Q: You knew that Jerry Moore, Appalachian State's head coach that day, was a longtime receiver coach under Tom Osborne, didn't you?
A: (laughter from a proud Michigan alum). No, I did not know that ... very interesting. I know they (Appalachian State) did a great job and had great athletes. They were so fast and had so much team speed. It was unfortunate that Michigan lost, but there was a silver lining for the conference because it kind of put the network on the map.
Q: This might be the most important question I ask. Even though it's probably not fully quantifiable, hasn't every single member of the Big Ten Conference considerably enhanced its recruiting prowess by having your network to tout among parents, relatives, fans and the recruits themselves, and how does that simple fact influence programming?
A: We've heard many anecdotes of student-athletes joining universities in the conference because they've watched the network, and they've grown attached to a certain program. For me, the most rewarding thing about that is, it's not limited to football and basketball. It includes women's volleyball and softball and baseball and ... across the gamut, there's evidence of kids finding out about universities or becoming more attached to them because they've watched all kinds of sports on the network. I know Northwestern recently recruited a player who became the first running back the school had ever gotten from Texas. That had never happened before, and the kid mentioned that he'd watched Northwestern play several times on the Big Ten Network, and he liked Coach (Pat) Fitzgerald. It's that kind of exposure that was never in place before. Our games are all additives to ABC and ESPN games, which a lot of people forget. Some fans may overlook the fact that every single Big Ten football and (men's) basketball game is nationally televised, but recruits and parents don't overlook that fact. They know the games are going to be on ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 or BTN. No game is going out to a small audience. In some major conferences, games aren't even televised at all. It's a great benefit, and I just really like the fact that it's a broader benefit and not just the big sports.
Q: BTN is majority owned by the Big Ten Conference, while Fox holds a minority interest. When does the current contract expire and what will you and your team do for an encore?
A: It's a very long-term deal. Our focus right now is just to make the network more and more enjoyable to our viewers and improve our programming. We're still very, very early in our growth stages. When you're a Big Ten fan now, you watch your games on either ABC or ESPN, which are multi/multi-billion-dollar companies or this "little network" that didn't even exist a few years ago. So we have this really high hurdle to be a seamless viewing experience for a fan. I don't want people to say: "Oh well, it's not going to be as good as our other games" because we're on the Big Ten Network instead of ESPN or ABC. We're always striving to try improve our production values and to make it an enjoyable experience. We're going to have our own voice and try to do things that make more sense, given who we are. But from an overall quality standpoint, we're going to keep striving to narrow the gap and improve. We are sometimes limited on what we can do for Olympic sports, but we're keeping at it and focusing on getting better.
Q: Even though ABC and ESPN and Fox and BTN are separate, aren't they complementary and mutually reinforcing to achieve the seamlessness you seek?
A: Absolutely. There is a large benefit for people to know where to go for their games. Our ratings have grown every year. It takes awhile, but people are becoming more and more aware of where to find us in the offerings. That's going to keep happening for fans in the Big Ten region. It takes a second because you didn't grow up having a Big Ten Network. As we gradually improve our ratings, people are aware we're there, and they know where to go to get the games they're looking for.
Q: You've already described BTN launch as your personal most memorable moment. What's been the most difficult challenge you've faced?
A: Obtaining distribution that first year was very hard. We had a lot of fans who didn't get the games, and that wasn't anything that we set out to do. People weren't really getting the network, and they didn't understand exactly why not. Some of the cable companies had some pretty strong PR campaigns on their behalf that didn't put our network in a favorable light. We had to keep the network focused on good product and making ourselves look good on air. At the same time, we worked on getting distribution deals done and to make our universities and the conference and Fox not get overly antsy about not getting the distribution we were seeking. It was a very challenging first year and shortly before our first year ended, we were able to get our first major deal with Comcast. We got many mid-level systems done and Dish Network done, so we had major accomplishments for a first-year network. But the big four cable networks (Charter, Comcast, Cox and Time Warner) held out basically until the end of the first school year. It presents very challenging circumstances when people miss their football and basketball games.
Q: BTN is a 24/7 network that broadcast 600 events in HD last year. What's the threshold for this year and beyond, and how important is your business model of using students in professional roles to be successful?
A: It's really two-fold. We have the responsibility to be more like a big television network. I want students to learn how to produce games and announce games and get experience in a field they want to get into. Early on, I was grappling with how to make this educational and beneficial to students in a way that made sense. Another goal is to put as many events on the air as possible. Frankly, other than football or basketball, every time you put on an event, you're going to lose money. So you really have two different priorities that are kind of starting to feed into each other. If you produce more events, you get more experience and you get better. But you have to let the viewers know this is a different type of event. It isn't going to have the production quality of a football game or almost all of the basketball games. So we came up with the student designation to give them the opportunity to be paid student workers, and they can produce and learn and grow. We can't confuse the BTN brand, but we wanted to do more to help the schools and the recruiting aspect and the fans, so it all kind of came together. This year, we had more than 200 students who participated across the Big Ten schools. It's a great effort - something we're very proud of.
We have another initiative we're focusing on this year called "Live Big," where we're focusing on alums who give back to their communities, and we're doing television programs on them. We'll do one from each school and also highlight the community activity. Those are the kinds of things that we need to do to fulfill our mission. The Big Ten Network needs to represent what the conference and the schools stand for in addition to putting the games on and making a profit. We're even going to focus and feature students who can win scholarships, based on their ability to give back while organizing and making a difference in their own communities. It will help us define winning the way we think winning should be defined. We're just getting our arms around this now, but you'll see a lot of it in the fall. It is very important to us and something we are going to embrace.
A: Our guys know the Big Ten. Our guys are not there to overly dramatize things and get caught up in things like outshouting each other. Our guys are knowledgeable. A lot have either played in the conference or coached in the conference. Their only focus is the conference. They'll be able to offer meaningful perspective because we know our teams; we know our coaches; and we know our tendencies. Big Ten Football and Beyond and Big Ten Basketball and Beyond are designed for more knowledgeable fans, and I think you will find that every school will be getting better coverage than it has gotten in the past. We have to be more knowledgeable, more insightful and more intelligent than you typically see Big Ten sports covered.
Q: One last anecdote and one last question. When I "Googled" your name, I found a Mark Silverman who was a songwriter, an actor, a law partner, a director of immigration policy and a college physics professor. I got to thinking: To do what you do, don't you sometimes need to be a combination of all of those skill sets?
A: (laughter) You know, you could say that. I think you could stitch together a plan of attack from all of those. An actor? Absolutely. Law partner? Yes, all the time. Director of immigration policy? I'm not sure immigration so much, but we definitely have to make sure we're bringing in all the right people for the network. Professor? I don't know if it's just physics or the dynamic of always needing to know what's going on and what impacts what. You know my job has a lot of different aspects to it. Every day there's a new challenge or a new opportunity. It's definitely been the most fulfilling job I've had, and it has been the most challenging job I've had. When you look back, you want to be challenged, and you want to be fulfilled. It's hard to be fulfilled when you're not challenged. I believe I've gone through the toughest times. Now comes what's most important - How far can we take this? How good can we make the network? How impactful can we make the network for Big Ten fans across the country? It's definitely been a great journey so far and hopefully, it will continue to be that way.
Voices from Husker Nation
When you read the N-Sider on Mark Silverman, you understand what all goes into being a true trailblazer in college athletics. He did not try to sugar-coat the pain and the strain that it took for the Big Ten Network to be where it is four long years later. BTN did what no one else dared to do. No wonder Nebraska fits in so well to its new conference, culturally and courageously, as well as athletically and academically. This column was a great read, and I'm looking forward to the ones that follow. Larry Christenson, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Great article with Mark Silverman! I enjoyed learning more about BTN and Mr. Silverman. I was just selected to be a member of the Big Ten Network Fan Council, with the first meeting July 29 at the Big Ten Football Kickoff Luncheon. I'm so honored to be representing Husker Nation on the Fan Council. Keep up the great work and Go Big Red!!! Jill Micek, Omaha, Nebraska
Wow! I had no idea that the Big Ten Network has 45 million subscribers. What a recruiting tool for high school players who have dreamed about playing at Nebraska, but don't want to leave the sun. I see this network bringing more players like Prince Amukamara to Lincoln. In the immortal words of the late, great voice of the Huskers, Lyell Bremser, BTN "brings it all home!" Jim Martin, Gilbert, Arizona
You didn't ask Mark Silverman the big media question of the day - if and when will they offer BTN in 3D! How about the Huskers in 3D? John Wickstrom, Omaha, Nebraska
Read your story on the UNL website. Enjoyed it immensely. Took me behind the scenes and educated me about what it takes to dream big and then execute that dream. Nice work. Ray Carlson, Redding, California
I'm excited for the Huskers to be going to the BIg Ten! That's the move I wanted to see back when the Big 12 was formed. I was hoping that Nebraska, Missouri and maybe Kansas would join the Big Ten and been a part of the Western Big Ten. It didn't happen, but now we get to go to so many new venues in Minneapolis, Madison, Iowa City, the Big House, the Horseshoe, Happy Valley and more! I won't miss Texas or Colorado or a few others, but, of course, we will miss Oklahoma, Missouri, K-State, Kansas and Iowa State. Tom Osborne and Harvey Perlman deserve kudos for realizing what a great move this will be. As we head into the Big Ten and realize we'll have a target on our back, let's remember a Tom Osborne quote: "The odds are always against you no matter what your history is. You have to overcome the tendency to relax." I don't think Bo or Tom will let the boys relax, so bring on the 2011 season! Tom Gunlicks, Sioux Falls, South Dakota