- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 7, 2003

Sports fans living in Fairfax County may have to pay extra next year to watch ESPN and Fox Sports.

Cox Communications Inc., the Atlanta cable TV operator that provides service in the county, is considering removing the sports channels from its “full-expanded basic” package because of the high cost.

The company wants to move the channels out of the package and put them into a premium tier, said spokesman Bobby Amirshahi.

ESPN and Fox Sports make up 32 percent of Cox’s operating expenses, but 8 percent of total viewers, Mr. Amirshahi said.

The potential move comes as Cox, the nation’s fourth-largest cable company, negotiates new contracts with ESPN and Fox Sports. Cox’s contract with Fox Sports ends this year, and the ESPN contract ends after the first quarter of 2004.

Fox Sports is requesting a 35 percent increase in its current rates and ESPN is asking for a 20 percent increase, he said.

Mr. Amirshahi said the sports-channel rate increases for the last few years have been the main reason for price jumps in cable bills.

While Cox’s cable rates in Fairfax County have held steady this year, rates jumped as much as 7 percent in other markets.

Mr. Amirshahi said basic-cable rates could drop — though he did not say by how much — if the two channels were moved to another tier.

In an average monthly cable bill of $40 for 80 channels, customers pay $2.60 for ESPN, Mr. Amirshahi said. He did not disclose the cost of Fox Sports because of confidentiality clauses in Cox’s contract with its parent company, News Corp.

But ESPN officials say Cox is overstating the operating costs and understating the impact the sports channel has on its regional and local business.

“We don’t think Cox will distribute the station on a premium tier because ESPN is a staple to the local package,” said Ed Durso, executive vice president for administration.

ESPN generates 15 percent to 20 percent of the $4 billion in advertising that cable operators earn annually, Mr. Durso said.

He said ESPN has increased its rates because of the growing cost of buying TV rights for major sporting events.

A News Corp. spokesman said the company would not comment on the Cox negotiations.

So far, Fairfax County’s Cable Communications and Consumer Protection Department has not received any calls from concerned residents, Carolyn Quetsch, consumer-protection director, said yesterday.

“But the word about this is just getting out there,” Ms. Quetsch said. She expected phone calls to start pouring in today.

“Regardless of what Cox does, we’ll have people calling in to complain,” she said.

Ms. Quetsch will meet with Cox representatives later this month to talk about the impact negotiations could have on Fairfax County customers.

Comcast Corp., the Philadelphia cable operator that serves a large portion of the Washington area, declined to comment on whether Comcast is considering similar lineup changes in its basic-cable package.

If a new deal is not finalized before the existing contract runs out, Cox does not plan to drop the channels, Mr. Amirshahi said.

But he acknowledged that customers may opt for satellite television if the sports channels are put in a premium tier. Consumers pay more for premium channels because of leasing charges for a cable converter box and extra cable fees.

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