In what would be a major acquisition for the pay-per-view
industry, Viewer's Choice is talking with the National Hockey League and National
Basketball Association about distribution of each league's out-of-market PPV package this
Sources close to the situation said the network, which
offers 35 channels of PPV programming, would provide all or nearly all games from the
"NHL Center Ice" and "NBA League Pass" packages, which are currently
available exclusively through direct-broadcast satellite.
The network could reach a deal with both leagues for
distribution beginning with their 1999-2000 seasons.
Viewer's Choice representatives would only say that the
company "is always trying to develop or acquire the type of programming that will
enable us to level the competitive playing field. To that end, we're in discussions with a
number of program providers all of the time."
The industry has coveted the out-of-market packages for
hockey and basketball, as well as the National Football League and Major League Baseball.
DirecTV Inc. in particular has been able to use its exclusive carriage of the packages as
an effective marketing tool to lure sports fans from cable.
Last season,NBA League Pass pulled about 425,000
subscribers and earned around $60 million, while NHL Center Ice generated some 250,000
buys and $30 million, according to The Carmel Group. Industry sources, however, said the
packages have been marginally profitable for the DBS services.
Cable-operator attempts to acquire the rights have been
thwarted by the leagues, which fear that cable's extensive subscriber base would hurt
ratings for local broadcast-affiliate game telecasts.
This past season, the NBA -- in the midst of its first ever
work stoppage -- inquired about cable carriage of its package, but it was unable to reach
a deal with operators.
Representatives from the NBA would only say, "People
approach us all the time and want to do business with the NBA."
Representatives from the NHL and Viewer's Choice would not
comment on the matter.
Operators with knowledge of the talks believe this is the
best opportunity yet to compete directly with DBS for sports fans.
"We've always wanted the chance to offer the widest
variety of programming to our subscribers, and the [out-of-market] packages are something
that subscribers have asked for," said one cable operator who requested anonymity.
The agreements would be a major coup for Viewer's Choice
and the network's new president, Mindy Herman. One of her mandates is to acquire
high-profile sports and entertainment PPV events to effectively compete with DBS.
The network recently hired former DirecTV executive Rob
Jacobson -- who was instrumental in negotiating DirecTV's groundbreaking
professional-league out-of-market deals -- as senior vice president, distribution and
product development, with the hopes of securing those same deals for the cable industry.