Cox, Fox Deal Could Be Near

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Cox Communications Corp. is close to carving out carriage agreement with Fox Sports Net's regional sports networks.

Officials from Cox and FSN would neither confirm or deny any deal, but a source with knowledge of the negotiations termed a distribution agreement as "imminent," confirming other published reports last week.

The current Cox and Fox Sports Net contract expires at year-end.

The development comes amid Cox's very public battle over rising sports-licensing deals. Cox has said that News Corp.-owned Fox initially approached it with a 35% increase for Fox-owned regionals in several Cox markets.

The terms that Fox and Cox have tentatively agreed to are unclear, but it's believed the programmer will receive a "double-digit" fee increase each year over the life of the multiyear agreement.

The carriage deal would encompass 3.2 million Cox homes covered by Fox Sports Net's Southwest, Arizona, Southwest, West and West 2 services, as well as the Florida-based Sunshine Network.

Also, Cox has supposedly made some progress in its very bitter negotiations with ESPN.

Cox officials confirmed that ESPN recently expressed a willingness to consider some "moderated" price increases. "We're very pleased to have ESPN come to the table and we're looking forward to future discussions," said Cox director of media relations Bobby Amirshahi. "They've shown an indication that they're willing to consider something below their 20% [annual rate increases.]"

ESPN executives would not talk about the state of negotiations with Cox. Neither Cox nor ESPN would confirm whether the latest talks revolve around a renewal proposal the network pitched earlier this year that would drop annual rate increases to as low as 11%.

The proposal would reduce the cap on the annual rate hike it can levy, dropping it to 16% from its current 20% clip. From there, rate increases narrow, with sources indicating that the proposed contract in its later years calls for an annual hike of 11% per year.

But operators complained that the deal, which would run through 2014 and also includes distribution of other ESPN services, such as ESPN HD and ESPN Deportes, would still place ESPN's monthly rate around $9 at the end of the term.

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