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Reflecting on the history of The mtn. television network as it enters its final days

May 29, 2012
photo - Studio hosts Marius Payton, left, and Bill Doleman Photo by COURTESY OF THE MTN.
Studio hosts Marius Payton, left, and Bill Doleman Photo by COURTESY OF THE MTN. 

The original goal of The mtn., a network devoted to Mountain West sports, was to get in 4.5 million homes, conference commissioner Craig Thompson said.

The mtn. was not supposed to be a national network when it launched in 2006. In the press release announcing the network, the term “super regional network” is used. Thompson said all that was promised to the schools in that original deal was that The mtn. would reach 4.5 million homes – a goal that was met less than two years after the network was launched.

People associated with The mtn. have difficulty hiding their frustration, as the often maligned Denver-based network prepares to cease production at the end of Thursday. The network, the first dedicated to one college conference, was meant to give unprecedented exposure to Mountain West schools, and delivered almost 38,000 hours of programming. Instead, much of its legacy will be tied to what they say are misguided arguments about distribution and revenue.

“Some people thought it was supposed to be ESPN Junior and be national,” Thompson said. “I think the biggest thing was the expectation that The mtn. would be in 50 million homes – that was never the intent.”

The network was ripped for not being available in enough homes, although it is in 13 million homes as it nears its end. The mtn. would be included in criticisms of how little money each conference school made in the television deal, although that wasn’t part of the plan either. Unlike the Big Ten Network, which began with member schools owning 51 percent, The mtn. is owned by the league’s television partners. Even if The mtn. made money – which it didn’t – that money would have gone to the television partners, not directly to the schools. It wasn’t supposed to be the main outlet for national coverage either – what are now CBS Sports Network and NBC Sports Network were the platforms for the biggest games.

The mtn.’s goal of unique exposure was met, as it showed football games that might have been covered only locally and other sports that might not have been covered at all. That kind of air time for a nonpower conference was unheard of six years ago, and was a recruiting tool for many of the league’s coaches.

“We wanted to show them the games they wouldn’t normally see,” studio host Marius Payton said. “And we did that.”

In the first few months of operation, the employees of The mtn. weren’t sure if they’d make it through one year. Comcast didn’t join CSTV as a partner until mid-July 2006, and they launched The mtn. on Sept. 1 that year, giving the network about six weeks to hire a staff, build a set and buy equipment. The employees joke now about the early growing pains, such as having to reshoot entire half-hour studio shows because of a bad graphic - they didn’t have the technology to remove one mistake out of a show.

They started figuring it out, and the network gained momentum. DirecTV signed on to be a carrier early in 2008, which was huge for the network. Then Utah football’s undefeated season in fall 2008 brought legitimacy to the conference and attention to the network.  

“I thought, ‘This is it, finally,’” said Kim Carver, the original vice president and general manager of The mtn., who is now at Altitude.

Had the Mountain West been able to get that Bowl Championship Series automatic qualifier bid it lobbied for, perhaps The mtn. would have taken another step forward.

“Then you were thinking, the potential for the network is unlimited,” studio host Bill Doleman said about the hopes of getting a BCS AQ bid.

However, there were underlying issues.

Most networks moved to high definition, but production costs were high and The mtn., which was struggling to find an advertising niche as a quasi-national network with programming aimed mainly at a small region, stuck with standard definition for almost all of its shows, with some football games in HD. Thompson said he regretted not pushing for HD earlier.

“Maybe that would have changed some perceptions,” Thompson said.

Although The mtn. set out to be regional, there were distribution issues within its member’s home cities. Major carriers in San Diego and Fort Worth/Dallas did not carry the network, for example. The network’s plan to grow after it launched, instead of locking up major carriers beforehand, didn’t help distribution problems.

And there were newer, massive TV contracts which put the Mountain West’s small deal under a microscope, especially with a new batch of administrators at member schools. And, The mtn. ended up being the center of attention.

“I wasn’t under the impression we’d take on ESPN, but some ADs and presidents at schools maybe did think that way,” Carver said.  

The mtn. vice president of production and programming Steve Hurlbut and Carver think if a unified front among member schools was mandated from the beginning, criticism of the network might not have been so widespread, although the turnover within the schools was a factor. Since the announcement of the television deal, there have been 19 athletic directors and 16 presidents in the league.

“The presidents who were on board and signed that agreement in ’04, very early on in our tenure, those presidents weren’t the ones that were sitting in the room,” Hurlbut said. “So they’re asking, ‘Why isn’t (the TV contract) worth this?’”

The mtn. might have been able to survive those things, but it couldn’t survive realignment. When Utah, BYU and TCU left, and San Diego State and Boise State followed, that knocked some big markets out of the conference. When realignment rumors started in 2010, The mtn. employees understood what it could mean for their future.

“I paced a hole in the floor that summer,” Carver said.

Once Utah left for the Pac-12, realignment was on its way and The mtn. was in trouble. The MW’s television network partners, having lost many of the markets that were in the league when the deal was signed, made the decision in early April to shut down the network.

A big part of The mtn.’s legacy might not be realized until this fall. Last year, all of the Mountain West’s conference football games were on television. When the first round of the MW’s television schedule was announced earlier this month, every school had some games that weren’t scheduled to be broadcast - although some could be picked up on regional or local networks. Colorado State, New Mexico and Wyoming combined had just two football games scheduled for national television. Men’s basketball coverage will surely take a significant hit, and nonrevenue sports that got exposure on The Mtn. will very rarely be on television anymore, if at all.

“The original mission was to provide exposure and in-depth coverage of those schools beyond anything that anyone had seen before,” Hurlbut said. “In my mind, we hit that goal 100 percent.”

The final game of the Mountain West baseball tournament last week was the 899th and final live event in the network’s history.

“I think we put on a spectacular product,” said Payton, who was a studio host with the network from beginning to end. “I think we did a great job. I think we were misunderstood, and that’s my biggest disappointment.”

Contact Frank Schwab: 476-4891

Twitter @GazetteAirForce

Facebook Gazette Frank Schwab



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