- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 3, 2009

Sports fans must feel like Bill Murray on a February morning in Punxsutawney, Pa.

For what seems like the trillionth time, million of fans won’t be able to watch certain games on television because of a dispute between a cable or satellite company and a network.

This time, the battle is between DirecTV, the country’s largest satellite service provider, and Versus, a sports network that televises, among other sports, the NHL and Indy Racing League.

DirecTV on Tuesday dropped Versus, arguing that the depth of the network’s programming doesn’t justify the price for carriage. The dispute affects 14 million subscribers - nearly 20 percent of viewers who currently get Versus.

As in many of these conflicts, the disagreement is over price and availability. Versus reportedly earns about 21 cents for each subscriber from DirecTV and wants to boost its take to 26 or 27 cents.

But Versus president Jamie Davis said the dispute has less to do with money and more to do with carriage: DirecTV threatened to move the channel to a separate tier that would require as many as 6 million households to pay extra for the channel.

“This is all about carriage,” Davis said. “They were going to take it away and put it in a place where people would have to pay more money for it. That just wasn’t acceptable to us. We have to protect the people who are getting it for free.”

The NHL has remained calm, saying there still is a month to go before its season-opening games Oct. 1.

Davis said little negotiation between the parties is taking place. If the impasse stretches closer to the start of the season, hockey fans could become an important player by pressuring the sides to make a deal.

Perhaps more than any other carrier, DirecTV embraces sports in its channel lineup and often ranks among the first carriers to offer a new network.

The company pays about $700 million annually for the exclusive rights to the NFL’s out-of-market package and has added special channels for coverage of major tennis and golf tournaments.

But in the case of Versus, DirecTV is playing hardball.

It’s worth noting, of course, that Versus is owned by Comcast, a major DirecTV competitor.

The two companies have squabbled in the past, most recently over carriage of Comcast-owned regional sports networks in New England and California. Comcast long has refused to allow its regional sports network in Philadelphia to be carried on anything but Comcast cable systems.

To some observers, Comcast is simply getting what it deserves for its resistance to carrying some sports networks on its cable systems while providing broad distribution of networks it owns.

For more than two years, Comcast fought against carrying the NFL Network on its broadest digital tier. Comcast argued that the network didn’t provide enough compelling programming around the clock or during the offseason to justify its asking price.

DirecTV now is making a similar argument, calling Versus a “paid programming and infomercial channel with occasional sporting events” and describing the network’s demands as “piggish.”


Versus boasts of its programming upgrades, including robust coverage of the NHL, IRL, Tour de France and World Extreme Cagefighting mixed martial arts events.

Ratings for the NHL, in particular, rose dramatically last season, with nearly 3.5 million households tuning in to some Stanley Cup Finals games. Versus notes its strong ratings for Lance Armstrong’s return to the Tour de France as well as the potential for strong ratings from upcoming college football games and games of the new United Football League.

“There’s mass demand for our network,” said Davis, who claimed the network has received “tens of thousands of letters of support” from viewers.

A full look at Versus’ programming lineup suggests there are stretches of time when a mass audience isn’t tuning in. Thursday night’s lineup, for instance, features two half-hour sports bloopers shows, followed by “Bloodsport,” a 1988 martial arts film starring Jean-Claude Van Damme.

For now, the dearth of hot programming means there won’t be many viewers motivated to pressure Versus to make a deal.

Come hockey season, that could change.

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