Facing an arbitration hearing this week, DirecTV and Comcast appear to be inching closer to a carriage deal for the latter's regional sports network in New England.
But perhaps apropos of the long-running dispute over Comcast SportsNet New England, whose contract with DirecTV expired on Dec. 31, 2008, were the companies' respective positions.
"We continue to talk to them, but a resolution has not been reached," said a spokesman for Comcast Sports, while a DirecTV spokesman noted "an agreement has been reached, pending other discussions."
The rub is the other discussions. The arbitration hearing, scheduled in Los Angeles on Dec. 14 and 15 for CSN New England, which has remained on DirecTV throughout the year, is just one gambit in negotiations that now cut across eight RSNs, including three owned by DirecTV Sports Networks, and Versus. Comcast's national sports service, whose key properties included the National Hockey, IRL, the Tour de France, college football and mixed martial arts, has been off the No. 1 DBS provider's air since its contract ended on Sept. 1. and this month took an almost 9-million subscriber hit as free previews with three other carriers rolled off.
As such, Comcast and DirecTV are sitting on both sides of the negotiating table as both distributors and programmers.
"What started out with CSN New England and CSN Bay Area, now extends to nine networks; it's complicated," said one executive familiar with the negotiations.
In addition to Versus and CSN New England, there are trio of other arbitration cases involving CSN Bay Area, CSN California and CSN Chicago; negotiations for CSN Northwest, which is not carried by DirecTV; and a trio of RSNs now under the DirecTV Sports Network banner, following 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.
With the contract for CSN New England and CSN Bay Area both concluding at the end of 2008, DirecTV in early January availed itself of the arbitration option borne out of the Federal Communications Commission's conditions on the top cable operator's 2006 acquisition of part of Adelphia Communications.
Following the conclusion of the contracts of CSN California and CSN Chicago at the end of September, DirecTV also filed for the baseball-style arbitration, which has the intervenor decide on party's proposal over the other's offer.
On the other side of the table, DirecTV Sports Networks is trying to gain extensions for FSN Pittsburgh, FSN Northwest (Seattle-based) and FSN Rocky Mountain (Denver) and the sub-regional FSN Utah, areas where Comcast is the predominant cable operator. Those carriage contracts with Comcast expire at year-end.
As for Versus, the parties say they continue to negotiate, 10 weeks after the network was disconnected from some 14.4 million DirecTV households. DirecTV has argued against what it says was a 20% price increase and a move to place Versus on a lower level of service, one that would have dropped the network's sub count to 6.6 million on the DBS leader.
Versus said the dispute's roots lie in that downgrade and it had changed its proposal to keeping price the same under the expired contract and capping the money DirecTV would have to pay even as the DBS provider's overall subscriber rolls might grow.
Versus had been able to bridge much of the DBS sub drop through free previews in select markers served by Time Warner Cable and Cox Communications, as well as broad availability on Dish. As such, Versus' sub base most of this fall only fell to 71 million from the 75 million, when it was on board with DirecTV.
However, that base dropped to some 63 million, following the Dec. 1 closing of the free preview windows on Cox, Time Warner Cable and Dish, which has again reverted Versus to a position on its Classic Gold 250 package and above. DirecTV has cited that level of service as one of its arguments in the Versus' negotiations.
Versus executives said they remain in contract talks 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' premiere 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 declined to comment on the negotiations.