Ops In No Rush to Replace CNN/SI

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A number of MSO executives said AOL Time Warner Inc.'s soon-to-be defunct CNN/Sports Illustrated will not be immediately replaced when it goes dark in mid-May.

Instead, operators will examine other options, including the proposed AOL Time Warner/National Basketball Association-owned sports service set to launch later this year.

On April 5, nearly 200 CNN/Sports Illustrated employees were told the network would go dark May 15, said AOL Time Warner executives. Last January, Turner Broadcasting System Inc. decided to jettison the five-year-old sports-news network, but no termination date was set at that time.

But the time is now right to pull the plug on a service that tried in vain to compete in the crowded sports-news marketplace, said Turner Sports senior vice president of public relations Greg Hughes.

CNN/SI, which launched in 1996, was expected to combine the sports coverage of Cable News Network with the brand of Time Warner Inc.-owned Sports Illustrated
magazine to create a viable competitor to ESPN's ESPNews. But the service struggled to gain distribution.

Though it will be in 20 million homes when it shuts down, its carriage is still well short of the 26.6 million subscribers garnered by ESPNews.

The network, however did outlast Fox Sports Net's National Sports Report, which was discontinued last January.

Hughes would not say if Turner is encouraging operators to keep the channel open until the new AOL/NBA service — tentatively dubbed All Sports Network — is ready to launch in late summer or early fall. The network, for which the NBA is negotiating carriage deals, is asking for 50 cents per subscriber, according to sources.

The channel will feature four nights of NBA games each week, as well as some of CNN/SI's event programming, including the Wimbledon tennis tournament and National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) qualifying races.

Despite the availability of a valuable channel slot, several MSO programming executives said they're not in a hurry to fill CNN/SI's void.

"I think we're going to wait and see what's presented to us before making a decision," said Millenium Digital Media senior vice president of programming Peter Smith. "It's not something that we're taking from customers, but rather something that is being pulled from us."

CNN/SI is carried as a digital service in several Millenium systems, though Smith did not disclose specific subscriber numbers. He added the MSO would be receptive to all proposals — including the AOL Time Warner/NBA channel — but said the operators has no timetable for filling the channel slot.

Though Cox Communications Inc. offers CNN/SI in several systems, it hasn't decided on a replacement for the network, a spokeswoman said.

Turner's Hughes said about two-thirds of CNN/SI's nearly 200 employees will be absorbed into other divisions.

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