Universal Sports Transitions From Multicast Distribution, Inking Deals With Six Providers

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Universal Sports Network has signed carriage deals with a number of providers as it has transitioned from multicast distribution.

The Olympic-style sports network, which inked its first license fee deal with DirecTV in 2011, had been carried as multicast service in many of the top DMAs. However, the network announced last summer that it would move to become a traditional cable channel upon the expiration of the multicast contracts with the broadcasters on Dec. 31, 2011.

Universal Sports CEO David Sternberg said the network recently reached carriage agreements with Alaskan cable operator GCI, Hiawatha Broadband Communications in Minnesota, Cascade Communications in Oregon, Waitsfield Cable in Vermont, MTC Cable in New York and IPTV distributor SkyAngel. He said the service previously had been offered on a multicast basis through some of those providers.

Asked about the expectation that Universal Sports would lose homes during this transition period, Sternberg replied: "We acknowledged that six months ago. It was a turning point, the decision that we would no longer give the service away, and that we needed our distribution partners to step up and start paying license fees. We had hoped to have a few more large deals in place by now, but our timing was challenging."

Sternberg pointed to many distributors facing retransmission-consent deals and other business issues at the close of 2011, but he remains hopeful that those executives will now have the "bandwidth, figuratively speaking," to address Universal Sports. "We are still very committed to our position and confident that we'll get deals done."

To that end, Universal Sports may announce a carriage pact with a major distributor, as early as this week. Sternberg also said the network was "pretty far along" with two or three others and "we could get to the finish by the end of the month."

He declined to comment on where things stood with Comcast, saying he preferred not to discuss individual distributors. Comcast's NBC Sports Group owns a minority stake in Universal Sports, the joint venture with Leo Hindery's InterMedia Partners.

Sternberg said Universal Sports, which is on DirecTV Sports Pack and the DBS leader's international platforms, is being flexible relative to positioning and is open to sports and variety tier placement. He said the multicast positioning of the past was tantamount to "a three-year preview" of sorts. "I think we've shown there is a meaningful audience out there and are offering an economic package that is extremely attractive," he said, without disclosing rate-card specifics.

Universal Sports, which controls digital rights to much of its event coverage and other content, is offering video-on-demand, "TV Everywhere" and other authentication platforms as part of its offerings.

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