Longhorn Network still working out kinks

Saturday, November 12, 2011 | 4:06 p.m. CST; updated 9:06 p.m. CST, Wednesday, November 16, 2011

COLUMBIA — Six days after Missouri announced it would be the fourth team to leave the Big 12, and more than three hours before kickoff, a Longhorn Network crew set up at the 10 yard line on the south end of Faurot Field.

The Missouri-Texas game would not be broadcast on the channel, but the network was doing pre- and post-game shows.

Missouri is one the institutions blamed the most for the breakdown in the Big 12. In the spring of 2010 when the Big Ten decided to expand, even the governor of Missouri expressed interest.

But Texas also shoulders some blame, in particular its $15-million-a-year deal with ESPN to create the UT-centric Longhorn Network.

Now Texas A&M and Missouri are leaving for the SEC. The Big 12 will seemingly survive.

The Longhorn Network is working out its growing pains, including the issue of the network's limited access to people even in Texas.

"When you start anything from scratch, it's a huge undertaking," said Stephanie Druley, vice president of production for the Longhorn Network.

Later, she said, "We're looking forward to being a year from now, when we will have learned from our mistakes. You always want to get that first year under your belt to know what the challenges are."

Verizon FiOS launched the channel at the beginning of September, as did Grande Communications, UT Austin’s cable company. But because the network has yet to make deals with any of the major providers in Texas such as DirecTV or Time Warner, it is available to few.

“I’ve talked to people who have seen it, and they said the content is really outstanding,” said Malcolm Berg of Austin, who was in Columbia for the football game. “I think most people are pretty disappointed and not happy that they’re not able to watch it.”

Case Stockton and Davey Davis, fans from Dallas, said before the game that some people who have gone to greater lengths than others watch the network.

“We’ve got a friend who bought his IT guy in Arlington a TV and a Slingbox,” Stockton said. “He said, ‘Keep this TV on 24 hours a day and give me the pass-code to the Slingbox.’ ”

Druley pointed out that the Longhorn Network started hiring and planning in February and that affiliate deals often do not get worked out immediately.

“It might take you a few months to get the deals cut; that happens,” she said. “I have no hesitation to tell you that other affiliates will grow. It’s disappointing fans are deprived of it, but we’re doing a free preview this weekend online and the response has been unbelievable.”

One issue other Big 12 schools had with the Network was its intention last summer to broadcast high school football games. On Aug. 11, the NCAA ruled no network affiliated with a school or conference could broadcast conference-related programming.

That did not seem to comfort Texas A&M, which announced it wanted to leave for the SEC later that month, or Missouri, whose head football coach, Gary Pinkel, had called the network's decision to broadcast high schools "lacking common sense."

"Pinkel likes to blame on the Longhorn Network," Davis said. "We like to blame Pinkel."

Another objection with the channel has been whether it would lack objectivity. A stipulation in the contract between Texas and ESPN said that Texas could have on-air talent replaced if it did not reflect the “quality and reputation desired by UT.”

Druley said that did not mean talent like Longhorn GameDay hosts Samantha Steele and Lowell Galindo could not say anything negative about Texas but that they would abide by the same level of professionalism as other anchors. She did not know why the stipulation was needed in the contract.

"We had an overwhelming response," she said. "The people that had been negative about the network were asking for jobs when it was announced. I'm still getting resumes.

“We have been business as usual,” Druley said. “We let everything swell around us but continue to focus on what we need to do, and that’s the television. We have not sat here and read the papers and Internet and wring our hands about what’s going on.”

George Hernandez was another Texas fan from Austin who has not yet seen the Longhorn Network. He traveled to Columbia to see Missouri before it leaves the Big 12. He did not criticize Missouri for leaving, noting the perceived lack of stability in the Big 12. But he also did not blame the Longhorn Network.

"I think there was an issue beyond the Longhorn Network," Hernandez said.

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