CSN Houston Tries a ‘Freeview’

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Locked in distribution limbo with most providers in its five-state territory, CSN Houston last week began offering an expansive free preview of the service aimed at spurring affiliate agreements and, ultimately, subscriber gains.

At press time on Friday morning, CSN Houston’s free preview offer had attracted three small providers in the Houston DMA, but none of the major distributors in its five-state territory.

The difficulties CSN has encountered in gaining wider distribution comes as providers are taking a harder line on rising programming costs — in particular, on the sports side — and are trying to limit rollouts to subscribers that are sports viewers. DirecTV, Verizon Communications’ FiOS TV and Cablevision Systems have instituted monthly subscriber surcharges tied to sports fare.

CSN Houston, a joint venture of the National Basketball Association’s Houston Rockets, Major League Baseball’s Houston Astros and Comcast’s NBC Sports Group, calls the preview unprecedented in length for a regional sports network.

It will showcase Rockets playoff action versus the Oklahoma City Thunder; Astros games in its rookie season in the American League; and key matches from Major League Soccer runner-up Houston Dynamo.

CSN officials said Mid-Coast Cablevision, Texas Mid- Gulf Cablevision and Bay City Cablevision will carry the RSN during the freeview period.

“It’s a good sign,” an RSN spokesman said. “The distributors obviously see the value for their customers. Our distribution team will be working with them throughout the free trial period to get them to join at standard rates and terms.”

CSN Houston has yet to ink pacts with DirecTV, Dish, Suddenlink and AT&T U-verse since the service launched last October. It’s carried on Comcast in parts of Louisiana and Little Rock, Ark., as well as in Houston, and by small providers Coastal Link, Consolidated Communications, EnTouch, Phonoscope and Telecom Cable.

All told, CSN Houston covers about 40% of the Houston market, the nation’s 10th largest DMA with 2.2 million TV homes.

CSN Houston posted the release about its freeview offer on the “I Want CSN Houston” area of its website. The RSN also plans to run ads about the offer in local newspapers across the region over the next few days and promote the free trial on social media.

DirecTV said it was reviewing the offer. AT&T U-verse TV complained that the RSN wasn’t offering an a la carte option or offering to stream games during the preview. A Suddenlink spokesman said Friday the MSO was “reviewing the offer and intended to respond.”

Houston Mayor Annise Parker, noting that Houston sports fans and taxpayers helped fund the venues where the pro clubs play, has called for meetings with the major providers. DirecTV, AT&T and Suddenlink accepted the mayoral invite, but the meeting dates have not yet been set.

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