Tennis Lands on Time Warner Tier

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The Tennis Channel has signed a 15-year affiliation agreement with Time Warner Cable that will place the fledgling sports channel on all of the MSO's systems by the end of 2003.

There's one catch: the service will be distributed on the MSO's newly created, à la carte digital sports tier. But Tennis Channel executives were pleased at obtaining a long-term deal even before they announced a launch date.

"We believe it's unprecedented that a start-up, independent service would receive a 15-year commitment from an MSO for every one of its systems," The Tennis Channel chairman and CEO David Meister said.

Time Warner Cable executive vice president Fred Dressler said the unusual long-term agreement provides Time Warner with quality sports programming, as well as protection against any potential escalation in the network's rate card in the near future. He declined to disclose specific deal points, though.

"This is a way for us to control sports programming costs," Dressler said. "We feel we've protected ourselves from any significant rate increases."

SPORTS TIER HERE

The network will be carried on Time Warner's new digital-sports tier, which has been launched in about 25 percent of the MSO's systems.

Currently featuring the Fox Sports Digital Networks and Speed Channel, Dressler said the tier was created to provide programming to avid sports viewers without forcing those who don't want access to such programming to incur additional costs.

Time Warner said it could not provide current subscriber or penetration numbers for the sports tier. The MSO also wouldn't provide a price range for the tier, although similar niche-programming digital tiers range between $2 and $5.

Dressler hopes to offer at least six or seven niche sports channels on the tier in the near future, and eventually move more high-priced regional and national sports networks to the package. Contracts for most of those services — including ESPN and the Fox Sports Net regional services — allow only for broad, basic-cable distribution.

"I would love to do it [move high-priced sports networks to the tier] if the opportunity presents itself," Dressler said.

Meister said the 15-year deal signals the network's willingness to keep license fees at a reasonable level in an era of rising sports costs. He said Tennis isn't going to compete with ESPN or other networks for major tournaments like Wimbledon or the U.S. Open — U.S. rights for both expire this year.

Instead, it will provide extensive coverage of those events when they happen, as well as live coverage of other pro tournaments and tennis action that isn't currently televised.

"We're comfortable with our plans to bring sports programming together at an attractive price," Meister said. "If we can't, for some reason, run the channel within our business plan properly, [the long-term agreement] insures operators that we can't go back and ask them for a substantial rate increase."

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