ESPN Signs First MSO HDTV Deals

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ESPN, which launched its high-definition TV service on March 30 with Major League Baseball's season opener between the Texas Rangers and Anaheim Angels, announced a handful of HD-affiliation deals late last week.

The network signed agreements for its ESPN HD service with Insight Communications Co., Cox Communications Inc., the National Cable Television Cooperative, Service Electric Cable TV Inc., Utilicom Networks LLC and Comporium Communications systems.

Insight tier

Several of the MSOs listed in the announcement said they were working out the details of an ESPN HD launch.

Insight said ESPN HD would be part of an HDTV tier it plans to launch in the next several months. The tier would be priced at $10, in addition to a $2-per-month HD equipment fee, and would require the purchase of Insight's digital gateway tier at $7.95 per month.

Insight plans to place non-broadcast and non-premium HDTV content in that tier. Subscribers can receive HD feeds from local TV stations by paying the $7.95 gateway fee and $2 HD-equipment fee.

Cox said it was working to determine how it would launch ESPN HD, but adding the service to tiers that carry already Discovery HD Theater might be an option.

Cox has three markets where it leases HD set-tops for $10 a month, which includes content from local TV stations and access to HBO and Showtime HD. Discovery HD is available for an incremental cost of $5 to $7 in those markets.

In three other markets, Cox is selling HD set-tops for $495 a month. No extra programming tier is yet available in those markets. In Phoenix, Cox is selling HD set-tops and charging an additional $6 a month for Discovery HD.

Cox has launched HD service in San Diego, but not in its Orange County system that covers the area just south of Anaheim, Calif., where ESPN originated its first HDTV telecast.

Absent were deals with major MSOs like Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable.

"We see this very much as a marathon," said ESPN executive vice president of affiliate sales and marketing Sean Bratches. "We're in a group building the foundation of the HDTV structure."

Small leaders?

Bratches said he believes most MSOs will package ESPN HD with other basic-cable services in a tier separate from broadcast, although a handful of affiliates will launch ESPN in the broadcast-basic HD tier.

The NCTC represents small systems that are vulnerable to DBS competition, but might not have the capital to rebuild for HDTV. But the number of small operators set to launch HDTV "is more than you think," Bratches said. "Some are more aggressive than larger operators."

For instance, Blue Ridge Cable will launch ESPN HD on day one, said Bratches.

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