Add programming and affiliate executives at DirecTV and Rainbow Media and MSG to those who may be trying to hammer out carriage renewals on New Year's Eve.
The multiyear distribution contracts for Rainbow Media's national services AMC, We TV, IFC and Fuse conclude with DirecTV on Dec. 31, as do the deals for regional sports networks MSG and MSG Plus. Sources familiar with the negotiations also indicate that Sundance Channel, which Rainbow acquired last year, and Wedding Central, the spin-off of the women's-targeted We service, are also part of the negotiations.
A DirecTV spokesman confirmed in an email that "we are actively negotiating with them, having productive discussions" without providing further elaboration. Officials at Rainbow Media and MSG both declined to comment.
None of the parties would characterize the tenor of the negotiations, but the talks have certainly drawn far less attention than the retransmission-consent battle between Sinclair Broadcast Group and Mediacom Communications, as well as the finger-pointing over program pricing differences between Time Warner Cable and various Fox properties. In both cases, those deals also expire on Dec. 31.
For its part, DirecTV is in the middle of a number of other contract situations: Comcast's national sports service Versus has been off its air since Sept. 1 over pricing and positioning issues; the top DBS provider recently avoided arbitration by settling with Comcast SportsNet New England; it also has opted to initiate the baseball-style arbitration process with three other Comcast RSNs; is negotiating with Comcast SportsNet Northwest; and the nation's second-largest distributor faces contract expiration at year-end with Comcast for the trio of RSNs it owns under the DirecTV Sports Networks banner.
The negotiations with Rainbow and the MSG come as parent Cablevision is poised to spin off MSG, including the Madison Square Garden arena; professional sports teams the New York Knicks, Rangers and Liberty; theater venues Radio City Music Hall, The Beacon Theater and the Chicago Theater; the music channel Fuse; and its regional MSG Networks sports channels, into its own business.
First unveiled in July, Cablevision's original plan called for the transaction to be finalized by year-end. However, the company earlier this month said the spin would now occur sometime in the first quarter.
Moreover, it appears as if Cablevision is seeking significant rate hikes. According to its 10-Q quarterly report filed in November, Cablevision said it will pay an additional $30 million to MSG in 2010 as a result of its renewal of carriage agreements. Pali Research media analyst Richard Greenfield says that translates into an 82-cent per-subscriber, per-month rate increase for the MSG networks.
According to SNL Kagan, MSG is currently receiving, on average, about $1.84 per month per subscriber from multichannel video providers for the network and about $1.44 for sister channel MSG Plus. An 82 cents-per-subscriber increase would push a combined MSG and MSG Plus into the $4.10 range, a heady neighborhood given that the MSG services, which largely televise pro basketball and hockey, both lack baseball and a year-round slate of high-profile sports programming. It's unclear if Fuse, which has added some 10 million HD homes in 2009 via deals with eight cable operators, would be part of that increase.
"They are doing what they have always done, leverage the power of the regionals with the Rainbow services," said one affiliate executive.
Meanwhile, the other Rainbow networks approach the DirecTV deadline with more weight than when their expiring contracts were signed. AMC has certainly lifted its profile with original series Mad Men, which became the first basic-cable series to win the best drama award and then repeated the feat with the retro advertising show, while Bryan Cranston has taken a pair of best actor awards for Breaking Bad.
Wedding Central, capitalizing on the success We has enjoyed with such wedding-oriented fare as Bridezillas, launched on Cablevision's New York area systems in August. The negotiations with DirecTV could yield the rookie service gaining distribution beyond its parent's footprint.
For its part, IFC has been broadening its programming scope outside of its core indie film base, with continued investments in originals like sketch comedy The Whitest Kids U' Know and the six-part documentary, Monty Python: Almost The Truth (The Lawyers Cut), as well as acquisitions, including comedy classics Monty Python's Flying Circus and Arrested Development.
Sundance Channel is also evidently part of the negotiations. Cablevision acquired Sundance in May 2008 for $496 million in cash and General Electric stock from owners NBC Universal, CBS and entities controlled by network founder Robert Redford. The network, which has both digital and tiered position, has been looking to grow its base, via its mix of indie film and such original series as Iconoclasts, Live From Abbey Road, music talk show Spectacle: Elvis Costello and "The Green," its environmental/ecological programming block.