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Students: ‘We Want Our MTV, ESPN’

By Keith J. Winstein

NEWS AND FEATURES DIRECTOR

MIT graduate students made one thing clear last night: They want their MTV. And their ESPN. And the New England Sports Network. And Comedy Central.

At least for the near future, MIT’s reply is that it is unable to provide any of that. The graduate students were not amused.

It did not appear that any undergraduates other than me, a reporter, attended the meeting, which was announced to dormitory housemasters, Graduate Resident Tutors, and government officers as “by invitation only and restricted to house leadership teams and student governments.”

During the two-hour “Forum on Cable TV” called by Housing Director Karen A. Nilsson, the 14 in attendance -- representatives of Tang, Sidney-Pacific, Eastgate, and the Warehouse, graduate resident tutors from McCormick and Bexley, and a residential life associate from Next House and MacGregor -- expressed frustration with the loss of most basic cable channels from the MIT cable television system.

Randall W. Winchester, the longtime MIT Cable team leader with whom I work closely on the Library Access to Music Project, was barely able to finish his planned introductory presentation before a barrage of almost hostile questioning doomed Nilsson’s carefully planned agenda to abandonment after only its first bullet point.

Most basic channels lost in March

Forty “basic cable” channels previously provided in the subscription portion of MIT Cable were lost on March 1 when the country’s sole digital supplier of those channels, WSNet, went bankrupt.

The subscription service had about 370 subscribers paying $25 per month when the WSNet channels disappeared, Winchester said, and now costs $14 per month for an array of traditionally second-tier “digital cable” channels such as Fox Sports World provided by the Comcast Corp.’s “HITS” service.

Some of the channels that remained, such as ESPN2 and MTV2, will disappear in June because their providers do not allow HITS to transmit them to customers who do not also receive the related flagship channels ESPN and MTV.

MIT partly compensated for the WSNet bankruptcy when Nilsson’s office agreed in mid-March to pay $67,000 per year to provide a package of 11 so-called “essential” cable channels, including CNN, C-SPAN, and The Cartoon Network, on the free portion of MIT Cable.

But MIT Cable still lacks ESPN, MTV, the New England Sports Network, or Comedy Central, and Winchester said there was no simple means by which MIT could receive the channels.

Students challenge MIT Cable

The graduate students’ frustration at being caught in what seemed like another MIT vortex of “we do things a little differently and make everything more complicated than it needs to be” was palpable. They challenged Winchester regarding why something available to cable subscribers four blocks away had to be this difficult for MIT to provide in its dormitories.

¶ Why can’t MIT just buy ESPN for everybody? the students asked. The answer: Because ESPN wants at least $2.40 per MIT cable connection (there are 4,300) per month, the total price would be roughly $120,000 a year just for ESPN, something MIT is not prepared to pay.

¶ Okay, why can’t we just make ESPN and other channels available to students who want to pay for it? they asked. Answer: Because the only feasible mechanism to limit access to subscribers is through the digital set-top receivers used by the MIT Cable subscription service, and there is no easy way to provide “basic cable” channels like ESPN digitally to those boxes. That’s what WSNet did, and they were the only service in the country doing it before they went bankrupt. “It’s not really a technical problem so much as a business problem,” he said.

¶ But wait, AT&T Broadband used to provide an analog subscription service over MIT Cable with traditional analog “scrambling” before WSNet came on to the scene in 2001. Why can’t we bring them back and get ESPN and MTV and Comedy Central like we used to? The answer: It was AT&T that terminated the relationship with MIT because it was unable to make money selling analog subscriptions to MIT students.

¶ Can’t we get Comcast, Cambridge’s residential cable company, to bring us service? Answer: This is what Harvard has in only a few buildings, Winchester said, but it is not feasible at MIT. “They [Comcast] do not have any distribution system through [MIT’s campus] at this point,” he said. “The Cambridge cable operator won’t wire any of our buildings unless they get a contract to wire all of our buildings,” he said, and “we don’t want to give them space in our telephone closets.”

Bringing Comcast to replace MIT’s system entirely would probably mean losing all of MIT’s local channels, Winchester said.

¶ Okay, what about DirecTV satellite service? the students asked. Can’t we get ESPN through that?

Maybe, it turns out, but in almost the most inelegant fashion possible.

“The problem is, most of our buildings don’t have the infrastructure” to distribute a DirecTV feed to all rooms through the MIT Cable system, Winchester said. Instead, dormitories would have to buy a separate, private DirecTV installation, which would have to be professionally installed for roughly $1,000, Nilsson said, because DirecTV does not have professional installers that MIT would trust.

And because MIT buildings do not have the infrastructure to distribute the signal from a single dish, Winchester said, each dish would be able to serve only a limited number of televisions on a cable that would be physically distinct from MIT Cable.

Some students proposed having a limited number of televisions in GRT apartments or lounges be hooked up to these DirecTV dishes.

“If that’s something the houses want to do, we need to hear from individual houses,” who would have to agree to pay for the $1,000 installation and service, Nilsson said.

“How are you planning to fund it? Because we can’t fund it,” she said.

MIT to keep wheeling and dealing

In the long term, Winchester said, Comcast will probably start providing a digital service similar to that of the bankrupt WSNet, and MIT will again be able to provide subscription services of channels, like ESPN, MTV, and Comedy Central, that the real world takes for granted.

“Ideally, everybody gets it, and it’s just in your room and you can plug it in,” Nilsson said. “Randy is going to keep searching and trying to wheel and deal” to get more channels, she said.

In the meantime, Nilsson said she was “committed in my budget to continue” paying the $67,000 a year for the 11 basic channels her office has made free for all.

And, sounding somewhat like a media mogul, MIT’s director of housing declared a tough stance on ESPN, the Disney-owned cause of much of this unpleasantness, for playing hardball on prices, saying many universities were dropping ESPN as a result.

“Hopefully sooner or later they’ll get the message that if they really want to be the world leader in sports,” they’ll lower their prices, Nilsson said.