Edited by Mark Lasswell -- Broadcasting & Cable, 9/25/2005 8:00:00 PM
Booyah? Moolah! ESPN Wins Cable Spat
University of Louisville football fans almost got stiff-armed by ESPN on Saturday. The ninth-ranked Cardinals were scheduled to play the University of South Florida Bulls in Tampa, but they weren't scheduled to be on almost anyone's TV in Louisville, Ky.—until wrangling between cable operator Insight Communications and the sports behemoth was resolved at the last minute.
ESPN holds the rights to games in the Big East Conference, where Louisville plays. ESPN, which can be a tad undiplomatic in its dealings with cable operators, also is interested in expanding distribution of its new college sports channel, ESPNU. Insight didn't used to carry ESPNU. Now it does.
A couple of weeks ago, Louisville fans thought the game was going to be broadcast by Belo-owned ABC affiliate WHAS, the local-rights holder. But under its TV deal, ESPN has until 12 days before a game to exercise its broadcast option and, last Monday, grabbed the game for sparsely distributed ESPNU (it's in about 7 million homes, via DirecTV, EchoStar, Adelphia Communications).
Since Insight does not carry the network, the game wouldn't be available to the company's 275,000 area-subscribers—or to anyone, other than satellite customers.
Initially, Insight wouldn't budge. “ESPNU is a relatively new network. It was not a big priority,” Gregg Graff, Insight's senior VP of regional video services, said early last week. ESPN, he said, was using Louisville fans as “pawns.”
But on Thursday night, the two sides hammered out an interim deal. Insight added ESPNU to its digital basic tier immediately; the game would be carried the game on a local analog cable channel. The two sides also agreed to negotiate a long-term deal for all Insight systems.
As football season heats up, ESPNU no doubt will pluck other marquee games from the schedule, and cable operators across the country can expect similar run-ins.
“We will never be ashamed to put quality content on our networks,” says ESPN distribution chief Sean Bratches. “There is great demand for this content. These are passionate, loyal audiences.” Attention, pawns: Checkmate.
Maybe it was all those wacky ads for Priceline's cheap airfares. Maybe it was the intergalactic travel at warp speed. Whatever the case, during William Shatner's acceptance speech at the Emmys after winning best supporting actor in a drama series for his work on Boston Legal, he apparently spaced out on the memory of a fishing trip in British Columbia this spring with Boston Legal creator David E. Kelley.
“The other day, uh, I saw David Kelley,” Shatner said at the Sept. 18 ceremony. “I said, 'Hi, David!' That was the longest conversation I've had with him in the two years of doing this show.”
The producer was mystified by the ramblin' man. “I wasn't quite sure what to make of it,” says Kelley, laughing. After all, Kelley, Shatner and BL's James Spader took time out from a shoot in Canada to harass the fish and spend some quality bonding time together. Spader, who won the Emmy for outstanding lead actor in a drama series, managed not to perplex/diss the boss when accepting his award.
At B&C, we try not to be too persnickety when it comes to other publications appearing to pass off our scoops as their own. Might just be an honest mistake. But in the matter of who first reported negotiations between Viacom's MTV Networks and Comcast to partner up and launch a bevy of lifestyle channels, we can't keep quiet any longer.
Right off the top, let's get this straight: B&C broke the story in its Aug. 22 edition (second item).
It was amusing, then, on Sept. 13, to see the New York Post breathlessly announce the same news, trumpeting its supposed scoop as something “the Post has learned.” It was less amusing to see the Wall Street Journal reporting on the story the next day, crediting the Post.
Then came an item in the Sept. 18 Post, defending its “scoop” from criticism by Viacom Co-President and Co-COO Tom Freston during a recent investors' conference, when Freston dismissed “that scurrilous report in the New York Post.”
That really tore it. When media executives start tossing around allegations of scurrilous reporting, we intend to claim what's rightfully ours.
Oh, and it was nice to see that Mr. Freston in effect offered a non-denial denial of our original report. He acknowledged “discussions with outside partners,” and said, “But we haven't made any decision yet.” Never said you had, Tom.
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