Longhorn Network needs diversification

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Knowing the network’s history, it’s difficult to understand ESPN’s insatiable compulsion to create more and more programming with narrower and narrower focuses.

In 1978 Bill Rasmussen, the newly unemployed former communications director of the New England Whalers conceived an idea for an all-Connecticut cable sports channel. He went to RCA Americom with the intention of purchasing transponder time on their flagship commercial communications satellite, Satcom 1.

There were probably six people in 1978 that understood the potential of cable television, so RCA was having a difficult time selling the transponders, which were used to relay programming information to ground-based cable providers. Low demand forced RCA to restructure its pricing so that it was actually more cost effective to purchase one of the satellite’s 24-hour transponders than the ones Rasmussen initially bid for that only transmitted for several hours at a time.

Wanting to take advantage of this but knowing that he couldn’t fill 24-hours of airtime with Connecticut-only programming, Rasmussen was forced to expand the scope of the network to encompass sports from all markets. ESPN’s latest venture, the Longhorn Network, doesn’t benefit from that kind of foresight.

Watching the Longhorn Network is akin to watching some kind of bizarre CNN that only reports on things that happen in your neighborhood. There’s barely enough news in the entire world for CNN to not have to cut away to a YouTube video of a bear on a trampoline every 15 minutes; imagine what it would become if its coverage area were a mere 40 acres.

I caught up with the Longhorn Network early Sunday morning just as it was wrapping up a Texas-OU football game from 1994. From then on, most of the day’s programming featured the same dated editions of ESPN College Football Final and the Longhorn Network’s Texas GameDay Final. Texas GameDay Final is a well-produced program that recaps Texas football’s performance every Saturday. It runs for an hour and a half and is an hour too long — ESPN College Football Final is a national recap show that only lasts an hour. That rotation was broken up by a three hour program entitled “The Season: 2005 Texas Longhorns,” a documentary about the 2005 UT national championship team that I’m pretty sure you can buy at the airport for $5.

At 6:30 p.m., one more block of Texas GameDay Final and ESPN College Football Final followed coverage of the Texas-Iowa State game — not that Texas-Iowa State game, but the volleyball game that apparently also happened. The game itself was in the 4:30 p.m. slot, airing hours after its conclusion and re-aired at 9:00 p.m. I could have watched Bailey Webster record a career-best 16 kills on .593 hitting one more time, but I didn’t know what any of that meant the first time so I made no plans to stick around.

Since I don’t live on campus, it was a chore for me to find somewhere to actually watch the Longhorn Network, and it occurred to me that it might be possible that the sampling of programming I was able to observe on Sunday wasn’t truly indicative of the usual breadth of the Longhorn Network. The Longhorn Network posts its upcoming schedule on its website, so I was able to gain some insight into the diversity of its programming over the course of a week and it doesn’t get any better.

For the week of Oct. 2-8 at least, weekdays are dominated by repeats of a program called “Longhorn Extra,” an hour-long “daily record of all Longhorn sports” that airs new episodes weeknights at 10 p.m. Five-hour blocks of that show are accompanied by various decades-old football games against Oklahoma and episodes of “Friday Night Lights.”

All of this being said, I think it’s too early to really be able to judge the Longhorn Network based on its programming schedule alone. The original ESPN’s first broadcast in 1979 began with a women’s tennis recap on “Sportscenter” and followed with coverage of a professional slow-pitch softball game. The network proved innovative enough to diversify itself and become the cable giant that it is today. The same minds are at work behind the Longhorn Network, but whether or not diversity is even an attainable goal for a venture with such a narrow focus is the real question, and one that will ultimately dictate the fate of the niche channel.

Printed on Monday, October 3, 2011 as: Longhorn Netowrk needs to get back to home roots