Cablevision Grips MSNBC

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The competitive race among 2008’s Democratic presidential hopefuls has propelled MSNBC to its best ratings ever.

Yet, in much of the New York area, subscribers to phone-company television services can’t see the news channel. The reason: MSNBC’s carriage agreement with Cablevision Systems precludes its telco TV competitors from offering it to their subscribers.

“NBC has been unable to grant distribution rights to Verizon FiOS in markets where Cablevision is the incumbent provider,” Verizon Communications manager of media relations Heather Wilner said.

She could not provide a date when Cablevision’s contract will end, but added, “We hope to be able to offer MSNBC to our customers in the region as soon as possible.”

AT&T, meanwhile, said only that it doesn’t “have the authority to provide MSNBC in certain areas of Connecticut,” according to spokeswoman Jenny Parker. The telco offers U-verse TV in Stamford, Conn. — a town where Cablevision also provides service — sans MSNBC.

Cablevision is in the midst of broad carriage negotiations with NBC Universal, which would cover future terms for distributing the news service. But it’s not certain when the deal will be consummated, according to an executive familiar with the talks.

Asked to comment, Cablevision vice president of media relations Jim Maiella said: “We have a longstanding policy against discussing the terms of our agreements with programmers. We have carried MSNBC for many years, and we are certainly not the only video provider that carries the network in our market.”

Maiella was referring to DirecTV and Dish Network, which have rights to provide the news network nationwide, including in Cablevision’s territory.

Alyssa Donelan, vice president of media relations at NBC Universal’s cable group, declined to comment but noted that MSNBC is currently distributed to more than 92 million homes in the U.S.

The number of telco TV customers unable to watch MSNBC probably exceeds 100,000. Neither AT&T nor Verizon breaks out subscriber figures for individual markets. However, according to documents included as part of a false-advertising suit filed against Verizon last fall, the telco told partners it had 100,322 FiOS TV customers in the New York metro area in June 2007.

Cablevision’s carriage deal has deprived telco TV subs of, among other programming, the Feb. 26 Democratic presidential candidates’ debate in Cleveland broadcast by MSNBC.

MSNBC’s telecast of the debate drew 7.8 million viewers — making it the most-watched broadcast in the 11-year history of the network, according to Nielsen Media Research.