News

Versus, DirecTV Talk; Remain Disconnected

9/19/2009 2:00 AM Eastern

Versus and DirecTV may have resumed negotiations over their carriage dispute, but the talks evidently have yet to yield much light about a reconciliation.

Comcast's national sports network went dark on the No. 1 satellite-TV operator on Sept. 1, when its contract expired. The two sides remain apart, evidently entrenched over pricing and positioning issues, with DirecTV saying that Versus was seeking a 20% increase in license fees and that Versus should be located on a tier, as it is on Dish Network.

For its part, Versus, which continues to run call-to-action ads for its displaced viewers, maintains it's looking for a market-rate fee. Rather, its fight is over being dropped to a lower-level tier that would cost it 6 million homes.

Via e-mail, a spokesman said DirecTV is “still trying to negotiate a fair price that is comparable to other independent distributors and to package the service in a manner that reflects the value of the programming.”

Versus president Jamie Davis views the matter differently.

“We remain hopeful and are negotiating now, but we have yet to reach an agreement. For us, it's still about their intentions over the 6 million subscribers they are going to take the service away from and then have the others pay more for it,” he said. “We have not yet reached an agreement.”

With some 14 million subs through Sept. 1, DirecTV accounted for about one-fifth of Versus' 75 million homes. However, the programmer said it has been able to recoup about 10 million subscribers through exposure from free previews on Dish Network, Time Warner Cable and Cox Communications in Orange County, Calif.

In the meantime, Versus, despite the loss of DirecTV, has been able to improve its viewership this month. Davis said the network's momentum, reflected by successful runs with the National Hockey League's regular season and the puck sport's best postseason performance on cable since 2002 , as well as a doubling of viewership for the Tour de France this July, is continuing with the Nielsens.

Through Sept. 14, network officials said Versus had improved its viewership in primetime by 13%, in total day by 25% and by 88% during weekend afternoons. The latter was aided by its coverage of the Sept. 12 college football game between No. 2 Texas and Wyoming.

This past weekend, Versus had a pair of collegiate gridiron contests featuring top 25 squads: Florida State vs. No. 7 BYU and Duke against. No. 22 Kansas. The network ran newspaper ads in Florida and Utah touting the former, and in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., and Kansas City supporting the latter. The ad copy read: “If you have DirecTV, you can't watch this game,” before listing 800-642-1923 and suggesting that viewers “demand the coverage you deserve.” It also pointed to versus.com as a place “to switch your television provider.”

The ads are much tamer in tenor than the “Worthless” ads Versus ran two weeks ago in eight newspapers, that riffed off remarks made by DirecTV demeaning its programming, following the contract's expiration.

Davis indicated there will be more ads to follow, as Versus begins trumpeting its 2009-10 NHL coverage, which faces off Oct. 1 with a Boston-Washington and San Jose-Colorado doubleheader.

“We have received tens of thousands of calls and emails from viewers asking us about the status [of the dispute], how to contact DirecTV or where to go for another service provider,” said Davis. “It's our responsibility to DirecTV viewers who can't get Versus to help them find ways to get the network.”

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