Reynolds Rap

Cablevision-Tennis Channel: Hard Court Action

8/27/2009 10:40 AM

Talk about a deep approach shot.

Cablevision, as a “recent” member of the National Cable Television Cooperative, pushed Tennis Channel behind the baseline with its Aug. 26 announcement that it would avail itself of the co-op’s contract with the network calling for placement on a sports tier.

The operator’s stroke calls for Tennis to authorize its signal for standard- and high-definition play by Aug. 28, just three days before Tennis commences its initial coverage — totaling some 240 hours, including 72 of live match play — of the U.S. Open.

That forced to Tennis to scramble, and question various legalities of the deal.

For years, Cablevision, the predominant distributor in the New York DMA with some 3.1 million subs, and Tennis have been volleying distribution discussions, with the operator advocating positioning on its iO Sports Pak, which houses 15 other network and carries a monthly retail of $5.99. In recent months, Cablevision has also offered Tennis additional carriage on its iO Gold package, which counts another 300,000 subscribers.

Tennis, touting its global coverage of the sports, including rights to all four Grand Slams, an array of original lifestyle fare and its HD feed, believes it merits wider carriage, particularly since its rate card, according to SNL Kagan, remains about 15 cents per subscriber per month.

Last week, the exchange became more public as Tennis ran ads in Big Apple area newspapers, with a headline proclaiming “Thanks for Nothing Cablevision,” over an image of a tennis racket smashing a cable box. Copy inveighed Cablevision for dropping “the ball by preventing your subscribers from seeing Tennis Channel’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. Open,” while pointing consumers toward DirecTV, Dish and Verizon FiOS to gain access.

Long Island’s top newspaper Newsday, owned by Cablevision, did not run the ad. Cablevision, in a statement at the time, said: “The Tennis Channel ads are nasty, unfair and intentionally misleading, and we don’t think anyone should carry them.” It also ran an ad in Newsday pointing out that tennis fans could still get their fill of the Open via telecasts on CBS and ESPN2.

Tennis also put its position in motion, via trucks sporting ad materials on Long Island, including runs near Cablevision’s headquarters in Bethpage, N.Y., which is a few well-placed Roger Federer lobs away from the Open’s home at the USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, Queens.

The network yesterday delivered a few legal lobs of its own in response to Cablevision’s NCTC gambit. CEO Ken Solomon talked about the requirement of 30-day notification period before a network can launch and the unilateral nature of the press release announcing the operator’s intent. Solomon maintains that in the four-plus years he has led the network, Tennis has not accepted sports-tier only positioning, that its business model calls for a minimum of 40% penetration. He said Tennis proffered new deal points and incentives to Cablevision’s top management last weekend.

Solomon also questioned whether the NCTC deal was conducted in “good faith.”

From a broader perspective, one is left to wonder what kind of doubles partner NCTC is these days.  Indeed, Cablevision only “recently” became a member. Some say it joined the Lenexa, KS team on Monday; others point to yesterday.

Timing aside, is this a one-time play by Cablevision, taking advantage of a seven-year old contract, aimed at pinning Tennis on the baseline? Or, should other networks be practicing their return games.

The coop’s mission, in part, is to represent smaller cable operator in program negotiations. But it’s not exactly dipping into the junior ranks with members that not only include Cablevision, but Charter, Cox and FiOS.

Back to the match at hand. Can Tennis’ legal team find the angle for a passing shot? And even if they do, can Tennis executives effectively put the public back on its side of the court by keeping the network off of Cablevision’s sports tier on the eve of the top American tournament?

Truly, this is hard court action leading up to the Open.

September