The Pac-12 is in discussions with its network partners to change programming practices and avoid another season with an overwhelming number of night games, according to sources inside and outside the conference.
I wouldn't necessarily characterize the back-and-forth as negotiations, because the league has a contract with ESPN and Fox that isn't going away for a decade.
But Pac-12 officials were not happy with the '13 broadcast schedule and are working with their partners to find an acceptable resolution for all parties involved. One source called the league's approach "fair but firm."
The conference spent three months listening to complaints from fans and school officials. Commissioner Larry Scott and his lieutenant are keenly aware of the frustration.
Whether they can do anything about it remains to be seen.
It's important important to remember two things:
1. To get something ... and that something is the $3 billion deal with Fox and ESPN over a 12-year period ... you have to give up something.
The networks need programming and want flexibility, and they were willing to pay for it.
The Pac-12 decided the money was important enough to give up the neat-and-tidy schedule that had been in place for eons. (That's true on the basketball side, too.)
Make no mistake: The conference knew there would be more weeknight games and more Saturday night games when it signed the agreement, and Scott told the athletic directors and chancellor as much.
2. ESPN and Fox aren't the bad guys, they're business guys.
They're doing what's best for viewers, and what's best for viewers usually translates to what's best for ratings. Neither network has violated its contract.
(I'd argue, however, that Fox's decision to put Oregon-Washington on upstart FS1 and show the clearly inferior Kansas State-Baylor matchup on Big FOX violated the spirit of its relationship with the conference. That was ridiculous.)
But even if we take Nos. 1 and 2 above into account, the situation got out of hand in 2013: There were more night games than league officials expected.
The launch of Fox Sports 1 was part of the problem, as I documented during the fall. Games that were on FX in the afternoon in 2012 often became night kickoffs on FS1 in '13.
And the time zone issue is unavoidable: ESPN and Fox have no choice but to create their programming schedule in an east-to-west fashion. They have plenty of options at 3:30/4 p.m. Eastern and at 7/7:30/8 p.m. Eastern, but not so much for the late night window.
They just aren't going to start games in Norman or Austin at 9:30 p.m. local time.
Neither of those issues is going to change when it comes to future Pac-12 football programming.
The networks will keep scheduling east-to-west, and Fox will keep putting Pac-12 games on FS1 to generate ratings. (Live college football draws more eyeballs than anything else it could show at that time.)
But there is another issue at play in the Pac-12½²s Night Game Nightmare: The window of exclusivity.
It's a common component in sports TV deals, and here's how it works with the Pac-12:
Under the terms of the contract, Fox must show at least eight games on its over-the-air network (i.e., Big FOX), and ESPN must show at least two on ABC.
Those broadcasts have to be of the game-of-the-week variety and include a window of exclusivity from 3:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. (Pacific).
In other words:
If FOX broadcasts a game at 4 p.m., or if ABC shows a game at 5 p.m., then no other Pac-12 games can be televised until 7:30.
That's a serious problem for the Pac-12 Networks.
Yes, ESPN and FS1 show plenty of games that start in the 7—7:30 p.m. window, but the true source of the Night Game Nightmare is the impact the exclusive window has on the Pac12Nets.
If a 3.5-hour chunk of the day -- prime viewing hours -- is off limits 10 times during the season, then the Pac12Nets have limited options: Show games early, or show them late.
But there again, logistics make programming more difficult that you might think. In addition to the ABC/Big FOX window of exclusivity, the conference must take into consideration:
1. The Arizona schools don't want to play day games in September and early October because of weather.
2. Colorado and Utah don't want to play home games that start at 8:30 Mountain (when the exclusive window ends).
Which brings us to the current discussions.
As noted above, ESPN and Fox will not ... cannot ... change their programming methodology because of the time zone issue.
But here's what they can do: They can reduce or eliminate the exclusive window for the over-the-air broadcasts on ABC and Big FOX.
Maybe they eliminate it altogether.
Maybe they scrap it for half of the 10 broadcasts.
Either way, it would create more flexibility for the Pac12Nets.
I don't know the specifics of the options being discussed.
But I know this: If nothing changes, the uproar from fans and campuses will be significant.
Please check out Jon Wilner's College Hotline at www.mercurynews.com/blogs