Sports Media and BusinessNow You Almost See Hockey. Now You Don't
By Richard Sandomir The New York Times
October 20, 2005
If you're a Cablevision or a DISH Network satellite subscriber who looked forward to watching National Hockey League games on OLN, you've fallen victim to an anti-fan policy that boggles the mind.
The games you've expected to see since last Monday have been replaced by other programs on OLN - which, until making its deal with the N.H.L., was known largely for carrying the Tour de France - because its parent company, Comcast, wants to boost the number of its own subscribers.
It is a fine aspiration for OLN, which is in about 65 million cable homes, to want to broaden its availability, especially since it reaches 25 million fewer TV homes than ESPN and ESPN2, the league's former cable networks.
But do you deprive Cablevision and DISH viewers of what they were expecting so you can pursue the goal of rapidly increasing the number of subscribers?
What do you tell viewers who have heard about OLN's Monday and Tuesday night games and believed the promise in the network's advertising slogan, "We Believe in Hockey"?
If you're Comcast, you tell them that you have to earn back your investment, which includes $65 million for this season's TV rights, and that you're fighting other rival potentates like Cablevision and DISH to make OLN available to as many subscribers as possible.
"We had five weeks to get hockey on the air," said Jeff Shell, the president of Comcast Programming. "We moved mountains to deliver hockey to the fans."
The good will that Comcast built by stepping forward in August when ESPN declined to renew its N.H.L. deal is eroding with its demand that Cablevision and DISH rapidly accelerate their distribution of OLN - or their subscribers will be punished by getting a hockey-free version of the network.
Cablevision has the highest hurdle to meet Comcast's demand that it make OLN available to 40 percent of its nearly 3 million subscribers before hockey games will be shown on OLN on that system. Right now, only 22,000 get OLN as part of a 10-channel $4.95 digital sports package.
Comcast insists that it is fighting to make OLN available to those 3 million homes at a lower price than the 22,000 subscribers pay.
OLN is available to about 3 million of DISH's 11.4 million subscribers, but Comcast is pressing hard to have the channel moved to a less expensive tier that would greatly expand its availability.
Both Cablevision and DISH seem prepared to live with Comcast's cherry-picking of OLN hockey. "We'd like to work with them, but we won't let our customers be bullied," said Marc Lumpkin, a DISH spokesman. "We're disappointed that Comcast is not fulfilling its contractual obligations."
Charles Schueler, a spokesman for Cablevision - which has engaged in nasty disputes like refusing to carry the YES Network in 2002 - said the zapping of OLN hockey was "in violation of our contract."
"We call upon Comcast to return OLN hockey to New York fans immediately," he said.
In Cablevision's service areas in the metropolitan area, one Rangers game on OLN has already been blacked out, and six more may be denied to viewers; four Islanders games are scheduled, as are two Devils games.
Shell insisted that Comcast was correct in making its demands. About Cablevision, he said: "We've given them exactly what's in the contract. It never contemplated hockey." He added, "We don't have an obligation to add hockey unless they agree to our terms."
Even so, who thought OLN would branch into hockey, any more than HBO contracts with cable operators could contemplate a blockbuster series about a psychologically conflicted Mafia boss from New Jersey? How do you write such speculation into a contract - and how do you enforce it?
Shell was incensed that Cablevision ran newspaper advertisements last week trumpeting its digital sports offerings - called the iO Sports Pak - including "N.H.L. action all season long on OLN."
"They advertised that you should buy the sports tier when, at the very least, they knew there was a dispute," Shell said. "That's infuriating."
Schueler said the ad ran on Oct. 10, before any games were blacked out. The first OLN blackout occurred that night, and the first one involving the Rangers came in their game on Monday against Florida.
"We never imagined that Comcast would take the unprecedented step of electronically blocking hockey games and delivering a different version of OLN to New York than appears nationally," Schueler said.
This is a poor way to start the post-lockout relationship between OLN and even a relatively small sliver of fans, who need not care about Comcast's investment in production and marketing. They just see that in a short time, OLN came to hockey's rescue, and is now playing hardpuck.
The N.H.L. has not whistled this power play down, suggesting it lacks the power to do so. Bill Daly, the league's deputy commissioner, said, "We're monitoring what's going on, and we share the goal of everyone to maximize the coverage of OLN games in as many households as possible."http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/20/sp...ckey/20tv.html