News

Versus Takes 9 Million-Subscriber Hit

12/12/2009 2:00 AM Eastern

While still seeking a solution to its contract standoff with DirecTV, Versus’ distribution base has taken a 9 million-subscriber hit as free previews with a trio of carriers rolled off earlier this month.

Comcast-owned Versus, which has been off of DirecTV’s air since its contract expired Sept. 1, had made up for much of the 14 million-plus subscriber loss from the No. 1 satellite-TV provider with an expanded free preview on Dish Network, as well as through access to some additional Time Warner Cable and Cox subscribers in select markets. As such, Versus’ base only dropped to some 71 million homes from 75 million, before the DirecTV drop.

With the free preview windows closing Dec. 1, the national sports service’s customer count has decreased to some 63 million.

Versus executives said they remain in contract negotiations to obtain permanent, wider berths with Dish and the other carriers.

“These free previews were a great opportunity to give millions of additional customers exposure to Versus’ premier programming, and we’re currently in conversations with these TV providers to finalize a more permanent increased level of distribution for the network,” Versus said in a statement.

Dish Network officials declined to comment about the contract talks.

It was unclear at press time to what degree Versus’ negotiations with DirecTV — the parties remain at loggerheads over pricing and positioning — were being affected by other contract situations between parent Comcast and the satellite company, on both sides of the desk.

A quartet of Comcast regional sports networks — Comcast SportsNet New England, CSN Bay Area, CSN California and CSN Chicago — face arbitration hearings with DirecTV over carriage issues, while a trio of regionals under the DirecTV Sports Networks banner will see their carriage contracts with the top cable operator expire at year-end. Additionally, CSN Northwest is trying to secure carriage on DirecTV.

DirecTV, as part of conditions the Federal Communications Commission placed on the top cable operator’s 2006 acquisition of part of Adelphia Communications, elected to have an independent arbitrator intervene early this year for CSN New England and CSN Bay Area, whose contracts with the satellite company ended on Dec. 31, 2008.

Similarly, DirecTV has availed itself of that option for CSN Chicago and CSN California, whose contracts expired on Sept. 30.

Although the parties are still said to be negotiating, it appeared, at press time, that an arbitration hearing for CSN New England could take place in Los Angeles on Dec. 14-15.

A DirecTV spokesman did say that the company was in renewal discussions with Comcast for FSN Northwest, FSN Pittsburgh and FSN Rocky Mountain (and sub-region FSN Utah), whose contracts expire Dec. 31.

With the completion of the split-off transaction from Liberty Media Corp. last month that combined DirecTV Group and Liberty Entertainment Inc., Liberty Sports was rebranded DirecTV Sports Networks, which is now a subsidiary of DirecTV.

Although the parties continue to negotiate, the Versus-DirecTV stalemate has kept the network, which airs such properties as the National Hockey League, IRL, the Tour de France, college football and mixed martial arts action, off of DirecTV’s air for more than two months.

DirecTV officials maintain that the disconnect stems from the network’s push for a 20% price increase. Ironically, DirecTV has also pointed to Dish’s positioning of Versus on the Classic Gold 250 package as one of the main reasons the parties can’t steer a new carriage accord.

Versus said the dispute’s roots lie principally with DirecTV wanting to place it on a lower level of service, one that would give it access to 6 million subscribers, down from 14.4 million.

Versus also said it had changed its proposal and was keeping pricing the same under the expired contract and capping the money DirecTV would have to pay, even as the satellite provider’s overall subscriber rolls might grow.

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