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NFL, Victory Nets Struggle for Cable Carriage

10/19/2003 8:00 PM Eastern

The debate over the rising cost of sports may exact a toll on the distribution prospects for soon-to-launch networks.

Minnesota-based Victory Sports Network and the National Football League's 24-hour NFL Network will launch within the next two weeks, with neither certain to gain significant distribution carriage in a climate in which operators want to reduce programming costs and move pricey sports nets onto digital tiers.

Victory Sports, owned by the Major League Baseball's Minnesota Twins, will launch on Oct. 31 with a handful of deals with local MSOs, but most likely without carriage from the top Twin Cities area cable companies — Time Warner Cable, Comcast Corp. and Charter Communications Inc.

The service will feature Twins games in 2004 — which had aired on incumbent regional service Fox Sports North — along with Minnesota University sports and Big Ten basketball games, and other local college and high school action.

Victory president Kevin Cattoor termed discussions with operators "good," but he's not optimistic about reaching basic-tier deals for the majority of the 3 million households within the DMA before year-end.

With a rate card hovering around $2.10, operators have already told Cattoor that they want to offer Victory on an expanded-basic tier — positioning Cattoor maintained is not viable for the service, sources said.

While not commenting on the status of negotiations, a Time Warner Cable spokesman said Victory Sports has the characteristics of a network that the MSO has said should be launched on a digital sports tier.

The NFL Network is scheduled for a Nov. 4 kickoff. The channel, offering a myriad of classic NFL product, original programming, live preseason games and HDTV product, will bow in front of at least 11.8 million DirecTV Inc. subscribers as part of its new, exclusive "NFL Sunday Ticket" out-of-market pay-per-view pact.

The network last week signed a carriage deal with Cablevision Systems Corp.'s upstart Voom direct broadcast satellite service, but it did not secure distribution for the MSO's 3 million cable subscribers.

In fact, NFL Network has yet to score any cable carriage. Proffering a rate card of between 10 and 15 cents, the network, according to operators is out of bounds with its insistence on expanded-basic and even analog positioning.

Time Warner senior vice president of programming Fred Dressler said the NFL Network proposal doesn't have "sufficient value" to merit a carriage deal. A Cox spokesman was more blunt, saying issues of "content, pricing, packaging, and unavailability of Sunday Ticket are preventing us from reaching a distribution agreement."

A NFL spokesman downplayed the comments, adding that executives are "confident" that operators will realize the value of the network, which is being positioned more as a lifestyles channel, rather than a sports-oriented service.

He added the network has had talks with all major MSOs, a fact confirmed by Comcast, Cablevision and Charter executives.

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