Centennial's Comcast Media Center is such a mammoth facility that its hallways have been given street names to prevent the uninitiated from wandering it like disoriented lab rats involved in a pointlessly cruel maze experiment. Hence, visitors must traverse part of Uplink Avenue and take a long walk along Programming Place in order to reach the Mtn., a fledgling network that has quite a way to go before living up to its towering name. When asked what steps toward success she feels are particularly important, Kim Carver, the net's vice president and general manager, says, "Getting ratings will really help."
By this, Carver means she's looking forward to the day when the Mtn. begins subscribing to viewership-data services — a move that will probably take place this fall, after a year of operation spent working out the bugs and refining product. But most likely, the comment applies to the Mtn.'s current audience, too. At present, only a relative handful of viewers know anything about the operation, in part because of its remote dial position; Comcast subscribers in much of Colorado can find it on channel 411. Still, it breaks new ground as the first broadcast operation wholly dedicated to a single college athletic alliance: the Mountain West Conference, which consists of the Air Force Academy, Colorado State, Brigham Young, San Diego State, Texas Christian and the universities of New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Nevada, Las Vegas. Since the Mtn. soft-launched on September 1, 2006, representatives of the Big Ten, which includes such sports powerhouses as Ohio State and Michigan, say a network of their own will debut this August, and Comcast spokesman Tim Fitzpatrick expects that more will follow.
"Other college conferences are taking a look at the experience of the Mtn.," he allows. "There are additional opportunities for growth."
That goes for the Mtn. as well, and Comcast is a major reason why. The cable behemoth shares ownership of the Mtn. with CSTV Networks, a CBS company that's expanding at a rapid rate. Consequently, Comcast has a vested interest in the new project, and can guarantee cable placement in areas where it's the provider, thereby eliminating one of the most significant obstacles for many channels. Note that HDNet, a Mark Cuban-owned undertaking largely based in Colorado, still isn't on Comcast after years of lobbying and the presence of personalities such as Dan Rather.
According to Fitzpatrick, partnering with the Mountain West conference made sense for Comcast due in part "to the geography of the conference itself." Comcast blankets sizable portions of the region — all of Colorado, Utah and New Mexico, for instance — and "the communities where the schools are located typically don't have very much, if any, professional sports content," he says. "For them, college programming is a much more prominent part of the sports landscape. Plus, college rights are organized differently from the rights of professional sports. There are fewer league-imposed rules, and that gives us more freedom to work creatively with the schools to get them more exposure and to better serve fans."
As a result, the Mtn.'s overseers can concentrate on content rather than expending energy lining up distribution. "The carriage issue is very helpful," Carver concedes. "If you start a channel on your own, it's an uphill battle for carriage — and Comcast has been just terrific. I feel a lot of enthusiasm over being backed by 'the mothership.'"
Carver knows plenty about mothering, having recently returned from maternity leave after giving birth to her second son in less than two years. And if the Mtn. seems like the biggest baby of all, it's hardly the largest or most difficult of the ones that have been under her charge.
A Denver-area native, Carver cut her teeth in communications at JPI Productions, a live-sports production company run by her father, Jack Carver. She subsequently relocated to Hong Kong, where her sister lived, and shortly thereafter, in 1991, was hired for a six-week stint typing program-organization sheets into a computer at STAR TV, a young network that aspired to provide a variety of sports and other programming throughout Asia. Within four years, she'd risen into the executive ranks. However, she split in 1995 to help establish a Sydney, Australia-based sports network for Galaxy Television before moving on to Foxtel, a Rupert Murdoch venture where she did more of the same. "We launched Fox Kids, Fox Soaps, Fox History," she recalls. Then, in 2004, she decamped for Singapore, where she served as a veep for ESPN STAR, an entity that encompassed the Hong Kong multinational where she'd worked a decade earlier. In that time, she says, the number of employees swelled from thirteen to over 500.
These experiences were great preparation for scaling the Mtn. Carver officially arrived at her new job on August 22, barely a week before the channel went live. "It was like, 'Push the button and go!'" she recalls. Fortunately, the deep pockets of Comcast and CSTV financed a first-rate studio located in the Media Center, with talent to match. The main twosome, ex-CNN Headline News sports anchor Courtney George and Marius Payton, previously the face of sports on Salt Lake City's KTVX-TV, are polished pros with a good rapport, and they're supplemented by a strong cast of supporting players highlighted by former Oakland Raiders standout Todd Christiansen and Tim Neverett, a onetime KLZ yakker who hosts the chat program Around the Mountain.
Nevertheless, the challenges inherent in filling all that airtime are tremendous. At first the channel was so short of homegrown product that self-generated stuff had to be supplemented with hunting and fishing shows and other random syndicated fare — the sort of thing that's still being done routinely at Altitude, the Stan Kroenke-owned outlet devoted to the Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche. Things began to improve thanks to the Mtn.'s commitment to the most popular sports. During the 2006-2007 season, Carver says, the channel broadcast 75 men's basketball games, 23 women's basketball games and 45 football games, with thirty going out live and the remainder appearing on tape delay, and she expects to cover at least that many beginning this fall.
In addition, Carver continues, the Mtn. offers looks at "softball, volleyball, soccer and what we call the Olympic sports" — track meets and the like. To further supplement the schedule, each of the nine Mountain West colleges has been provided with a "campus cam" that students or others on site can use to capture post-game comments, record coach-hosted shows and more. Likewise, schools are encouraged to submit other internally produced, campus-oriented programming that will probably hit screens in the summertime, when precious few contests take place. Carver says each school will be the focus of a solid week's worth of programming during the off months.
No doubt school officials and instructors love the DIY idea, for both promotional and educational reasons. But with most folks apt to be mainly interested in football and basketball contests, who, if anyone, is watching the less-mass-appeal stuff? Parents, students and alums, Carver says — yet without ratings to confirm her suspicions, she's relying on word of mouth. By that measure, she feels the Mtn. is further along than she thought it would be at this point, albeit still a work in progress.
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As she puts it, "You're not going to be where you want to be on day one."
Even if that's a prime address on Programming Place.
The future of Style: Supervisors at the Denver Post don't yet know which workers will be taking buyout offers, or whether layoffs will be necessary to reach their goal of slicing the employee roster by 37. But conversations are already under way about trimming parts of the paper seen as comparatively nonessential, and managing editor Gary Clark confirms that Colorado Sunday and Style, two feature-oriented elements of the Sunday edition, are among those under discussion. "We are talking internally about a lot of things," he notes via e-mail, adding, "I honestly don't know what the final decisions will be."
If the sections survive, it'll be a surprise. The Post and the Rocky Mountain News appear to be following the example of schools that cut art and music classes at the first sign of a budget shortfall. Talk about a change in culture.