TNT, NBA Sign Up Affiliates

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The National Basketball Association gained more exposure for its national cable packages last week when Turner Network Television and the league co-owned NBA TV channel signed key affiliation deals.

AOL Time Warner Inc.-owned TNT, which is in the first year of a six-year, $2.2 billion NBA contract, reached a distribution deal with sister company, MSO Time Warner Cable, for its TNT Plus offering.

Meanwhile, the NBA TV digital network, which will air live NBA games on four nights — Saturday through Tuesday — will debut on DirecTV Inc.'s direct-broadcast satellite service early next year as part of a six-year agreement.

Looking for a rate increase from operators whose contracts extend past this year, like Time Warner, Comcast Corp. and Cablevision Systems Corp., TNT is selling operators a new channel dubbed "TNT Plus." Beginning in January, that network will offer all of the service's existing fare, plus its NBA and National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing coverage.

Operators that refuse to ante up will continue to receive the "current" TNT service, sans the marquee sports properties.

10 percent bump

TNT currently charges operators around 70 cents per month per subscriber. Under the TNT Plus deal, the network is said to be seeking a five-year deal that calls for 10 percent annual increases, which works out to a 7 cent bump.

Sources said Time Warner has agreed to TNT's 10 percent rate increase for TNT Plus.

A TWC representative acknowledged an accord had been struck between the MSO and TNT, but would not comment on specifics.

A TNT spokesman would say only that the network has signed a number of affiliate deals and plans to sign more.

Turner Broadcasting System Inc. president of domestic distribution Andy Heller has said he expects to have deals for TNT Plus in place with every MSO by the new year, and he's prepared to offer two feeds of the network if necessary.

Calls to other MSOs whose contracts expire at year-end — including Charter Communications Inc. and Cox Communications Inc. — didn't shed light on whether they had reached agreement for TNT Plus.

Comcast and Cablevision, whose contracts run until at least the end of 2003, face the possibility of carrying TNT without its high-profile sports programming. Cablevision officials did not return phone calls by press time. Comcast executives declined to comment on the matter.

TNT also has yet to cut a new distribution agreement with DirecTV, whose current contract with the network ends Dec. 31.

"Turner has a lot of good product and they're asking a lot of money for it," DirecTV senior vice president of programming acquisitions Michael Thornton said. "It's never an easy negotiation, but they're a good partner and we look forward to working something out."

NBA's satellite deal

DirecTV's new NBA TV deal will give the DBS service access to live regular-season and post-season NBA and Women's National Basketball Association games, as well as classic contests and a package of match-ups from its minor league circuit, the National Basketball Development League.

Neither the NBA nor DirecTV disclosed terms. The league has said it is seeking a 25-cent-per-month license fee for the service.

"[The NBA] is asking for a lot of value, but they're giving a lot of value as well," Thornton said. "It's not a digital channel that costs pennies per sub, but at the same time it will provide about four games per week, which is something that no other league has stepped up to."

NBA Television president Ed Desser said both parties were satisfied with the licensing agreement, which will allow the league "to support the kind of programming that we promised that this network will provide."

NBA TV also has an affiliate deal with EchoStar Communications Inc.

The league has yet to reach a cable deal for NBA TV, but Desser said he hopes to announce agreements soon.

"We're in constant communications with major MSOs … but the agreements have taken longer [to complete] than we hoped they would," he said. "We think we have a fairly compelling story to tell, and I believe the cable industry will see those benefits."

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