Cablevision’s N.Y. Sports Networks On Brink, Again

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The latest standoff between a big cable distributor and an owner of regional sports channels pits Time Warner Cable and Madison Square Garden Networks in a dispute over how much to spend for games spread across a growing number of services in the New York area.

Three months after it was pushed to a tentative accord, MSGN last Friday threatened to cut off Madison Square Garden Network and FSN New York from 2.3 million Time Warner Cable subscribers by Nov. 24 if a conclusive carriage deal couldn’t be reached.

Helping to fuel the fire: A New York state judge on Nov. 17 refused to block Time Warner, Comcast Corp. and Major League Baseball’s New York Mets from proceeding with plans for a new regional sports network.

The judge is still weighing a final decision on MSGN’s request for a preliminary injunction against the proposed 2006 launch of the channel.

MSGN and FSNY have gone dark on Time Warner before. In August, Cablevision Systems Corp., which owns the two networks, pulled them for nearly 10 days, blacking out five Mets games in the process.

If an accord can’t be reached this time, the immediate impact would be on MSGN’s coverage of the New York Knicks, the National Basketball Association team owned by Cablevision.

After a tentative accord last summer — struck with help from New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer — MSGN imposed a 75-day window to complete an affiliate deal. That window closes on Nov. 24, sources said.

“MSG Networks and Time Warner Cable will meet with New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer on Monday,” MSGN said. “We expect that our issue with Time Warner Cable will be resolved before it has any effect on our customers and fans.”

A Time Warner spokesman was also hopeful that a deal could be reached shortly. “We don’t understand why Cablevision has threatened to pull their channels and institute this deadline,” he said.

“We hope to negotiate toward a new long-term agreement which would guarantee our customers continued carriage of MSG and Fox Sports New York.”

According to The New York Post, which first reported the story on Friday, Time Warner ran crawls on The Weather Channel and the TV Guide Channel Thursday, alerting customers to the possible loss of the sports networks. Time Warner said it would slot in NBA TV and College Sports Television if the Cablevision-owned channels go dark. Time Warner also said it would rebate $2 to customers if the channels went off the air.

At issue now, as then, is the cost of the regionals.

Time Warner continues to balk at a proposed $4 for both MSGN and FSNY, an increase over the $2.90 monthly subscriber fee paid to Cablevision as part of a deal that expired last December.

The Post and sources also said the dispute involves carriage of Cablevision’s regional MetroChannels; new services such as “SportsDesk on Demand”; and a MSGN/FSN HD channel.

Sources said the deal terms haven’t changed much — in fact, MSGN might be asking for more money for the two services.

Sources said Cablevision has taken that position even though, over the last two years, MSGN and FSNY have lost Major League Baseball’s New York Yankees and the National Basketball Association’s New Jersey Nets, both to Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network. And the Mets plan to exit after the 2005 season.

Cablevision has countered that, on a per-channel basis, the proposed increase would keep both networks under the $1.91 to $2.11 rate that competitor YES charges.

Currently, MSGN’s coverage of the Cablevision-owned New York Rangers and FSNY’s presentations of New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils games have been iced by the National Hockey League player lockout, which threatens the entire 2004-05 season.

In what was viewed as a pre-emptive strike against the Mets channel, MSGN earlier this month reached a 20-year deal with the Devils through the 2023-24 season.

After hearing arguments from both sides on Nov. 17, New York State Supreme Court judge Justice Helen Freedman reserved a decision on MSGN’s request for a preliminary injunction to block the proposed Mets service, clearing the way for the club, along with Time Warner and Comcast, to pursue plans to launch the 24-hour channel.

Freedman did not say when she would make a final decision.

MSGN said in a statement: “Yesterday the court heard our argument for a preliminary injunction and we look forward to Justice Freedman’s ruling on our motion. MSG Networks will have no further comment at this time.”

Although the Mets exercised a contract option in August and paid Cablevision $54 million in to terminate a rights deal at the end of the 2005 season — six years before it was set to expire — MSGN claims the club violated a clause that prevents it from shopping TV rights until Nov. 1, 2005.

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