Chicago news: Comcast SportsNet celebrates 10th anniversary with eye on great unknown, the future

My latest Chicago Tribune column is on a landmark anniversary for Comcast SportsNet Chicago.

You also can access the column at my Twitter feed @Sherman_Report.


When Comcast SportsNet launched on Oct. 1, 2004, the Blackhawks barely registered in Chicago. It didn’t even matter that a NHL strike wiped out the entire 2004-05 season. The ratings wouldn’t have been much higher if the Blackhawks were actually playing games.

Fast forward to 2014, and Blackhawks games now produce the highest ratings among the Bulls, Cubs, and White Sox on CSN–often, by far.

So as CSN celebrates its landmark 10th anniversary this week, the improbable rise of the Blackhawks illustrates just how difficult it is to predict where the channel is headed in the next decade.

“There are so many possibilities out there right now,” said Phil Bedella, vice-president and general manager of CSN.

The network has come a long way in its first 10 years. When it debuted in 2004, CSN was operating out of make-shift studios at CLTV in Oak Brook, with directors and producers working from production trucks in the parking lot. Now it has a modern operation in Chicago that also includes a large digital presence.

Under long-time president Jim Corno, whose presence still is felt even after he died last December, CSN became the nation’s first regional network to be owned by multiple pro teams. They essentially eliminated the middle man, which had been Fox, in forging their own deal with Comcast.

While Bedella won’t divulge figures, he says the arrangement has impacted the bottom line for the Bulls, White Sox, Cubs and Blackhawks.

“I can say this business definitely has lived up to the expectations for the partners in terms of profitability, promotion and coverage of the teams,” Bedella said.

Bedella contends the set-up also has benefitted Chicago sports fans. CSN airs more than 400 games per year, plus comprehensive studio shows, documentaries, and specials.

“Having one stop for all things Chicago sports is terrific,” Bedella said. “We don’t just cover one team. We cover all the teams.”


The uncertainty in the future:

Cubs decision: It is fairly clear that Cubs would like to go solo with their own network, beginning in 2020. There are many market factors that will determine whether the Cubs eventually go that route, but if they do, it would leave a big programming hole for CSN.

Bedella, who is monitoring the situation, chooses his words carefully.

“Our hope is for all the teams to stay together,” Bedella said. “I think we’re stronger with all four teams. Time will tell if everyone chooses to embrace the model, or if one of the teams will want to have its own voice in the marketplace. A lot will play out in the next five years.”


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