MSG Network to Sing a Different Tune

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If you turn on your TV and see veteran rocker Peter Frampton performing live, chances are you'd probably think you're watching VH1 Classic.

But beginning this summer, New York-based regional sports service Madison Square Garden Network will be home to Frampton and a host of other entertainment-based fare, alongside its traditional coverage — a prelude to part of an overall on-air and programming revamp that will have the service sporting a hybrid lineup this fall, according to president Mike Bair.

The move by Cablevision Systems Corp.-owned MSGN move to diversify its programming lineup — which follows the loss of marquee pro-sports content such as New York Yankees and New York Mets baseball games to competing, team-owned regional sports services — could serve as a template for the future as the number of regional services proliferate and product becomes scarce.

“It's purely a defensive maneuver, but I think that's what more regional sports networks will have to move toward,” said Kagan Associates analyst John Mansell.

Jim Martin, president of Denver-based Altitude Sports Network, which devotes 5% to 10% of its lineup for non-sports product, including coverage of local bands, an area film festival and public service fare, expects more regional sports services to adapt the hybrid format.

“For the 24-hour networks that are losing product and for startup networks with one main team, you have to fill it up with something, and entertainment programming generates a good audience,” Martin said.

Under the tagline “Pumped From The Heart,” MSGN in October will supplement New York Knicks National Basketball Association games, New York Rangers NHL games, New York Liberty Women's National Basketball Association fare and New Jersey Red Bulls MLS soccer with content from vintage and current concerts, pro wrestling events and other non-sports fare that have or will play at “the world's most famous arena,” also owned by Cablevision.

The network will produce a series, 50 Greatest Moments at the Garden, which will count down the top events in the Manhattan arena's history. “The entertainment is an opportunity in nights where we don't have sports,” Bair said. “We will let the market and our viewers tell us what works and doesn't work.”

MSGN's long-term deals with operators allow for the influx of entertainment programming, according to Bair. The network's current monthly rate card ranges between $1.80 and $2 per subscriber. Network affiliates Time Warner Cable, Comcast Corp., DirecTV Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp. declined comment on the matter.

Bair said the network also will offer several on-demand and broadband channels that could feature local high school games, halftime performances and backstage access during major concerts. That these multiplatform elements could generate additional ad sales opportunities for operators is part of the pitch.

Reflecting its new direction, MSG SportsDesk, the network's nightly news show, will be renamed MSG360.

“With the launch what you will see is a comprehensive repositioning of the network that includes digital product announcements, broadband products, new advertising and sponsor partners, a new on-air look and new programming content,” Bair said.

At MSGN, the hybrid play follows the defection of the Mets this season from it and sister service FSN New York to SportsNet New York, owned by the club, Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable. Four years earlier, the Yankees and the New Jersey Nets basketball franchise created the Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network.

To help fill the Mets void this summer, MSGN will soft launch themed-based nights. Mondays will feature both in-game and musical elements from New York's street basketball leagues. On Tuesday and Friday nights, the service will feature vintage and current MSGN events, said Bair, who is in negotiations with many performance rights-holders.

Already secured: musical performances taken from the Jammies music-awards show, held for the last four years at the Garden.

As for FSN New York, Bair said the network will also undergo a re-launch this fall with a more focused approach on national Fox Sports Net fare.

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