Viewer's Choice last week closed a multiyear deal with
the National Hockey League that makes the league's "Center Ice"
subscription package available to digital-cable subscribers for the first time. The deal
"Center Ice" is the second subscription
pay-per-view package previously available exclusively on satellite that new Viewer's
Choice senior vice president of distribution and product development Ron Jacobson has
secured in recent months. In August, the former DirecTV executive cut a deal with the
National Basketball Association to offer the "NBA League Pass" subscription
package to cable operators for the first time.
"Two down, two to go as far as the professional
leagues go," said Jacobson, who said he has his sights set next on acquiring Major
League Baseball's "MLB Extra Innings" package for cable -- possibly as
early as next season.
Jacobson said there are two years left in DirecTV's
exclusive "NFL Sunday Ticket" package, the hottest subscription pay-per-view
offering on the market. But the National Football League package is an obvious target for
Viewer's Choice, he said.
NHL vice president of business affairs Doug Pearlman and
Jacobson said they would have preferred to close their deal well before the 1999-2000
hockey season started in September. Concerns raised by regional sports networks that carry
NHL games contributed to the delay, both executives said.
"They [local rights holders] had some concerns, and
their concerns have been addressed," said Pearlman, who declined to discuss the
"NHL Center Ice" will not be available on cable
until after the league's midseason All-Star Weekend, scheduled Feb. 5 to Feb. 6.
"The fact that this is a half season doesn't
enable us to have that preseason push that we would like, but the second half of the
season is very compelling from a promotional perspective because it includes the first two
rounds of the playoffs," Jacobson said.
Subscribers who opt for this year's half-season
package will be charged $99. In subsequent years, a full season of "Center Ice"
will cost $139.
The package offers subscribers 30 out-of-market games per
Viewer's Choice, which is changing its name to In
Demand on Jan. 1, will "heavily promote" the package starting in early January,
Pearlman wouldn't discuss how Viewer's Choice and
the league will split "Center Ice" revenue. But he said the league gets a set
percentage from subscriptions, while Viewer's Choice will negotiate its own revenue
splits with cable operators.
"How they [Viewer's Choice] divvy up their piece
is up to them," Pearlman said.
While Viewer's Choice hasn't signed affiliation
deals with cable operators for "Center Ice," Jacobson said he expects that
operators who have signed up for "NBA League Pass" will also pick up the hockey
Digital systems carrying the NBA package include Comcast
Corp.'s systems in Northern New Jersey and Baltimore; Time Warner Cable in Austin,
Texas, and Tampa, Fla.; Cox Communications Inc.'s San Diego system and the AT&T
Broadband & Internet Services system in Dallas.
Center Ice is distributed on 10 digital-cable channels and
requires operators to dedicate 6 megahertz of bandwidth from a system headend, Jacobson