Programming Briefs

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Could Lockout Ice ESPN-NHL Deal?

New York — In the wake of the cancellation of the 2004-05 National Hockey Leagueseason, one of the biggest questions is whether ESPN will ice its rights relationship with the league altogether.

ESPN, which inked a one-year pact with the NHL for about $60 million — half of what it paid annually under the deal that expired with the end of the 2003-04 campaign — didn’t pay any money for the season that wasn’t. Now under two one-year renewal options, ESPN will decide in April if it wants to pick up the puck sport again.

ESPN officials could reject the option and renegotiate at a lower fee.

“We’re hoping that [the NHL] resolves its issues, and that we can come to an agreement,” ESPN senior vice president of programming David Berson said. “We’re not looking to just get back the product that was there before, but we’re excited about growing the sport with the help of some possible rule changes and improvements to the television product.”

Replacement programming, including college basketball and original programming like Tilt, have doubled the NHL’s ratings from last season, something that can’t help the league’s leverage as it tries to resuscitate next season.

FSN-affiliated regional sports networks will offer coverage of college hockey tournaments, as well as other collegiate events, while Comcast SportsNet’s services will look to provide extended spring-training Major League Baseball coverage to make up for lost NHL games.

Meanwhile, MSO executives and DirecTV Inc. are making plans to provide rebates to consumers who preordered the $139 “NHL Center Ice” subscription out-of-market game package.

Lance to Ride Again In Tour de France

Silver Spring, Md. — Cycling superstar Lance Armstrong last Wednesday said he will attempt to ride to his seventh consecutive Tour de France victory in July.

That’s good news for Armstrong’s new team sponsor, Discovery Communications Inc., and for Outdoor Life Network, which holds the U.S. rights to televise the world’s most prestigious cycling race.

After Armstrong won a record sixth consecutive Tour de France last summer, he committed to racing in at least one more Tour de France for Discovery, but wouldn’t say if it would be in 2005 or 2006.

The announcement’s timing could have been better for OLN executives, who made no mention of Armstrong’s plan when they gave an upfront presentation to advertisers last Tuesday night in New York.

OLN officials knew the Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team planned to detail Armstrong’s schedule Thursday, but didn’t know whether Armstrong would race in the upcoming Tour de France, an OLN spokeswoman said.

Armstrong also will compete in the seven-day Paris-Nice stage race in March, as well as in the Tour de Georgia and Tour of Flanders, both of which are scheduled for April.

OLN will cover those races as part of its new Cyclysm Sundays series at 5 p.m., beginning next month.

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