Sports and Old Media

October 24, 2005

After a season lost to labor problems, the NHL is back playing hockey, but with significant changes in the game and the business. New rules are resulting in more penalties. The new collective bargaining agreement has teams and players concerned with salary caps. OLN, the league's new cablecast partner, has lower ratings than ESPN.

The OLN cablecasts are probably an improvement over the ESPN versions, because the top OLN broadcast team, Mike Emrick and John Davidson (who will also call the NBC broadcasts), are much better than ESPN's woefully mediocre top pairing of Gary Thorne and Bill Clement. Adding Davidson to the booth for ABC broadcasts did somewhat ameliorate the awfulness of the Thorne and Clement pairing.

Best known for covering the Tour De France cycling and World Cup skiing, OLN picked up the hockey contract as a way to become a competitor to ESPN and Fox Sports. And even though I'd love a sports channel of just hockey and alpine skiing, OLN needs more programming to fill its schedule, which leads to fun moments like this one described by columnist John Buccigross: Observations from my hockey night:

During last Monday night's Sabres-Penguins game on cable station OLN , I heard Mike Emrick read an OLN promo for Ted Nugent's meat-seeking reality hunting show. At one point, while reading the 'Ted or Alive' promo, Emrick said, 'And at some point, Uncle Teddy will bite the head off a wild boar while killing an elk with nothing but a fishing hook.' Or something close to that. It was truly a seminal television moment.

While Emrick read the promo, you could hear in his voice, 'I can't believe I am actually reading a promo for a Ted Nugent animal shooting-spree television show.' It was priceless.

Not many viewers had the opportunity to watch that gem. OLN only reaches about 65 million homes, which is about 25 million fewer than ESPN and ESPN2. Cablevision and Dish Network subscribers who receive OLN were not able to watch the hockey game. Richard Sandomir in the New York Times reports: Now You Almost See Hockey. Now You Don't.

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The games you've expected to see since last Monday have been replaced by other programs on OLN - which, until making its deal with the N.H.L., was known largely for carrying the Tour de France - because its parent company, Comcast,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.

Despite the expectation that they will experience a mediocre season, OLN featured the New York Rangers in its opening day cablecast and will feature the Rangers 7 more times throughout the season. Cablevision happens to own the New York Rangers. The result of this situation is that Cablevision subscribers to OLN were not able to watch the Rangers opening game at all.

Rangers blog Hockeybird explains: Disgraceful

Cablevision (which also owns the Rangers and the MSG network), does not carry OLN on its basic tier. In order to get OLN, Cablevision subscribers need to pay about $5 dollars extra per month for an additional "sports tier", which would give them OLN, along with several other channels, including the Golf Channel and Fox College Sports.

HOWEVER.......OLN feels it should be carried as a basic tier network as it is in most areas of the country, and is not permitting its coverage of NHL games to be shown on Cablevision, EVEN IF THE SUBSCRIBER PAYS EXTRA FOR THE NETWORK. The National Hockey League is fully aware of this situation, and is permitting OLN to engage in this practice.

Most of these Cablevision subscribers have no other choice for cable television, since municipalities generally grant a monopoly franchise to one cable operator. The major cable operators all belong to media conglomerates. Cablevision owns the Madison Square Garden, the Rangers, the Knicks and the MSG and Fox Sports NY networks. Comcast owns OLN among other cable channels. Time Warner Cable is part of the Time Warner mothership. In the lack of an open market for cable channels, where customers can choose which networks to subscribe to, the cable providers compete with various bundles.

Sports programming attracts fans who want access to every game, so holding sports programming hostage is a common tactic of competition in cable television. This summer, Time Warner subscribers were unable to watch Mets games on MSG and FSNY while Cablevision and Time Warner negotiated for licensing fees.

This pseudo monoply power restricts access not just to cable television programming, but is contributing to stagnation in the market for home broadband. See, Free American broadband!

Most Japanese consumers can get an Internet connection that's 16 times faster than the typical American DSL line for a mere $22 per month.

Across the globe, it's the same story. In France, DSL service that is 10 times faster than the typical United States connection; 100 TV channels and unlimited telephone service cost only $38 per month. In South Korea, super-fast connections are common for less than $30 per month. Places as diverse as Finland, Canada and Hong Kong all have much faster Internet connections at a lower cost than what is available here. In fact, since 2001, the U.S. has slipped from fourth to 16th in the world in broadband use per capita.

Because of the same monopoly power granted to incumbent telephone and cable operators and in the absence of a national broadband policy, cable and DSL providers have few reasons to offer services at rates (of both speed and price) comparable to those available overseas.

Posted by Andrew Raff at October 24, 2005 05:19 PM
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