Outtakes: Yes, They Will Return

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The 11th-hour settlement of the NBA lockout --and its potential impact on cable -- made me think of Jeff Mintz last week. Morespecifically, it made me think of a comment that this rabid Yankee fan made nine yearsago.

Jeff was raving mad over the Cablevision Systems-MSGNetwork dispute, which deprived many fans of Knicks and Rangers games in the 1989-90season.

The two sides were at odds over MSGN's refusal to beplaced on a tier. Cablevision argued that MSGN's $1 affiliate fee was too pricey forexpanded basic.

My friend Jeff was uttering the usual expletives that werein fashion at the time to describe cable operators -- monopolists and greedy thieves werethe nice ones.

So, I suggested, why don't you and everyone elsewho's fed up just cut off your cable for a month. That would be an effective protest.

"Are you kidding?" he replied. "I'm notgoing to cut off my cable!"

Cable operators, Turner Broadcasting and regional servicesworried about fan reactions to the lockout should take heart from those words. Eventually,viewers will return to their sets to watch NBA telecasts because fans are incapable ofcollective action.

But fans -- cable subscribers -- really hold more powerthan the billionaire owner or the 23-year-old with the $100 million contract. If theyswitch off their sets or boycott the arenas, the skyrocketing, out-of-control sports-costsscenario that is helping to cripple cable operators today might well collapse.

If ratings decline and people stop attending games, thefollowing things would happen: Turner Sports couldn't afford to pay $890 million forthe NBA rights; owners couldn't pay center fielders $11 million per year; andsalaries would have to come down, as would ticket prices, network rights fees and licensefees to cable operators.

The end result: Everyone would get -- and pay -- less, andsanity would prevail.

Fortunately for those with vested interests in the statusquo, the Jeff Mintzes of the world will never unite.

The biggest losers to date from the lockout are theregional-sports networks: The Chicago Sun-Times reported that Fox Sports Chicagolost an estimated $235,000 to $250,000 in revenue for each of the 22 cancelled Bulls gameson its schedule. It may make some of that back, but who knows -- especially if MichaelJordan retires?

And other regional-network executives concede that the NBAis by far their strongest product during the winter.

Moreover, some regionals face a crunch for the next fewmonths, as the condensed NBA season heats up. To squeeze all of the games in, teams willplay up to five times per week -- twice their normal pace. What will regional nets do withthe overflow hockey and college games on their schedules?

Spillover channels are one answer, but they rarely earn theratings that the flagship service gets.

In the New York area, Cablevision Systems at least has theMSG Metro channels that it owns to turn to for its mega-packed schedule of Knicks, Nets,Devils, Rangers and Islanders games. And the beauty is that as terrestrially basedservices, Cablevision will hold these games exclusively, unlike Fox Sports New York, whichthe MSO must sell to DBS and to rivals like RCN Corp.

Some TV columnists were sniping at Cablevision last weekfor holding such a firm grasp on the games. But the irony is that operators only begancreating such exclusive channels in response to program-access rules that forced them tosell their programming to competitors.

And fair is fair: Cable operators can't get theirhands on the NFL Sunday Ticket, which is one of the biggest selling points for DBScompanies.

Big media companies like Cablevision and Fox are winning inanother way.

Some fans are likely to stay away from NBA arenas, at leastfor a while. Basketball tickets, after all, are not cheap. At Knicks games, the prevailingdress code is suit and tie; many attendees are either rich, or they get in on corporatefreebies. Regular people holding season and single-game tickets are still around, but theyare largely confined to the cheaper, nosebleed seats.

That's why media moguls like Rupert Murdoch, Disney,Cablevision and Comcast make billions of dollars. By owning both the teams and the TVrights, they're in a win-win situation. Fans won't pay the price of admission?Fine: They'll catch the games on cable and help to goose ratings and ad rates.

That's assuming Jeff Mintz isn't finally fed up.But I have a feeling that he'll be sneaking in some games on MSG this year.

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