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College-network partnerships skews coverage to favor programs

When I saw the press release announcing the creation of Sooner Sports TV, a package of 1000 hours of programming centered on the University of Oklahoma athletics on Fox Sports TV platforms, one name flashed briefly in my mind.

Penn State University.

For a moment, I thought about the longtime fan devotion and institutional success, which turned so much coverage of Penn State’s football team into worshipful stenography. And I thought about how badly it all ended, as the school moved to cover up the crimes of convicted pedophile Jerry Sandusky.

Now we have one of the biggest names in regional sports coverage teaming with a major college to televise huge chunks of OU sports programming to about 9 million homes in four states, using programming largely provided by the school’s own, 95-member SoonerVision production facility.

This is a serious alignment of sports brands aimed right at the heart of rival ESPN’s $300 million deal with the University of Texas to create the Longhorn Network.

Since Fox’s Sooner Sports TV shows won’t take over a single channel like ESPN’s project, they don’t have to sell cable systems on taking the content, integrating the OU programs into their mix of programming across a variety of platforms in Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana.

In the process, the distinction between a sports network that broadcasts games and a sports franchise that plays them gets blurred even further. And independent coverage of the sports program may be the first casualty.

This is an issue critics raise with national broadcasters such as ESPN and the big TV networks continually. If the media platform provider is hip-deep in a business deal with the team whose games they are airing, can consumers expect incisive coverage of the program?

In other words, if Fox Sports is committed to airing 1000 hours of programming annually from the Sooners’ programs, will they be interested in digging up any controversial stories which might damage the school’s image in the sports world?

Especially since they are relying on production facilities from the school to provide their “all access” content – including (according to the press release) coaches’ shows, weekly magazine shows, material from the school’s vault of historic game footage and press conferences.

I admit, invoking the Penn State name is a bit hyperbolic. But it’s also a searing example of what can happen when too many journalists assume the image of a school’s sports program is the reality; sports programs need incisive media coverage to stay honest, much as viewers rely on sharp coverage to keep them informed.

It also probably sounds old fashioned to expect incisive coverage from regional sports networks often focused on airing games to serious fans.

If Penn State taught us anything else, it’s that fans often don’t want to hear anything negative about the teams they love and media outlets which dare to step on that dynamic do so at their own peril.

Despite the Longhorn Network’s struggle to get on cable systems – the channel just signed a deal with AT&T’s U-verse system and airs on Verizon FIOS – the Fox/Sooners alliance indicates such pairing will increasingly become part of sports media’s future.

It feels like an inevitability in a way; a collision of sports programs’ increasing development of their own media platforms while cable providers search for new business alliances and program opportunities.

We can only hope that, along the way, the value of independent perspectives on sports programs don’t get lost in the rush to cash in on new partnerships and old rivalries.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the Tampa Bay (Fla.) Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. He also provides regular commentary for National Public Radio and has been published by the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed.

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