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Big Ten finalizing cable deals

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — When it launches in August, the Big Ten Network wants to be available in every cable- or satellite-wired home in eight states where its schools play.

That's the goal, anyway.

So far, only satellite provider DirecTV and a handful of small local cable companies have signed on, Mark Silverman, the new sports network's president, said Wednesday during a news conference at the University of Illinois.

"Everyone we've talked to admits and values the Big Ten as a brand, as a network," said Silverman, who declined to discuss details of any negotiations or identify the cable companies.

"These discussions are just very involved. They're very complex," he said.

Silverman joined the new Chicago-based network, co-owned by the Big Ten and Fox Cable Networks, in December after working as general manager and senior vice president of ABC Cable Networks Group.

The Big Ten Network plans to show all of the conference's football games that aren't broadcast elsewhere — at least 35 a year. It also plans to show at least 105 regular-season men's basketball games, 55 regular-season women's games, 170 other events from sports such as softball and track, and Big Ten championships.

The network also owns the rights to tapes of Big Ten football and basketball back to 1960, Silverman said, allowing it to produce "classic" programming similar to that featured on ESPN Classic.

When it launches, the Big Ten Network will be the second TV network in the country devoted to the sports of a single conference. The Mountain West Conference launched its own — The Mtn. — last fall. Other conferences, notably the Southeastern Conference, also have talked about networks.

The mtn., a joint venture of the conference and Comcast Cable, now is carried by 16 cable companies in seven Western states, spokesman Ron King said. But no satellite carrier has signed on yet and the network is not being carried in one of its biggest states, Texas, he said.

"That's been a negotiated point for a long time," he said. "It's still being pursued."

League- or team-specific sports networks — even those focused on major leagues such as the NFL — typically have difficulty getting cable and satellite carriers to add their programming as part of basic packages, the kind customers don't have to pay extra to watch.

"Every major sport, to some degree, is faced with a competitive marketplace in the TV world," King said.

Silverman said the Big Ten's national footprint and the size of its schools give his network a much stronger starting point.

The Big Ten Network's DirecTV deal, for instance, will put it on one of the satellite carrier's packages that doesn't require most customers to pay extra.

Beyond the eight states where Big Ten schools play — Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — Silverman hopes to negotiate deals that will allow viewers to see the network on nothing more expensive than second-tier programming packages, those just above the basic level.

Comcast Cable spokeswoman Jennifer Khoury declined to discuss talks with the Big Ten Network in detail.

"It's very early in our discussions, but we are talking and we will continue to do so," she said.

A spokesman for Echostar Communications Corporation, DISH Network's owner, did not return a call.

The new network also is expected to be a revenue generator for the conference's schools, paying each $7.5 million a year.