Friday, February 24, 2012

Is cable TV about to drop the (base)ball?

Byline: Carolyn Shapiro

Mar. 29--Sharron Ford, a former New Yorker and serious Yankees fan, couldn't wait for the cable television companies to work out a deal to carry a special package of Major League Baseball games.

Earlier this month, the Virginia Beach resident switched from cable company Cox Communications Inc. to satellite provider DirecTV, which had signed a deal with Major League Baseball to offer the Extra Innings subscription package. Viewers who pay a premium for the package during baseball season, which officially begins Sunday, can watch all Major League games shown in any regional market no matter where they live.

Cox and other cable companies had offered Extra Innings, which is known as an "out-of-market" seasonal sports package, since 2002. About two weeks ago, Ford learned that negotiations to renew the package had grown contentious between the cable companies and Major League Baseball, which owns the broadcasting rights to all of its games. She and her husband feared Cox would lose its access to the package.

"We're diehard Yankee fans," Ford said, "and if we don't have our baseball, it drives us crazy."

Major League Baseball has given the cable companies a deadline of Saturday to come up with an acceptable agreement. Last week, the baseball organization rejected an offer from the cable operators.

The clash has caught the attention of Congress, in particular Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who urged Major League Baseball this week to work out a deal with the cable companies and satellite provider EchoStar Communications Corp., which owns Dish Network. At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing Tuesday, Kerry asked baseball officials to consider cable and Dish customers who had received the package previously.

Cox, based in Atlanta, and other cable companies receive Extra Innings through In Demand Networks, a joint venture owned by Cox and fellow cable giants Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Entertainment Co. In Demand provides other subscription sports packages, pay-per-view programs, on-demand movies and a high-definition channel. It negotiates for programming rights on behalf of its parent companies, then sells and distributes those programs to other cable operators and some hotel chains for their in-room services.

In Demand lost its access to a similar subscription package for this season's NASCAR races last year. Ford said the change devastated her father-in-law, a NASCAR aficionado and Cox customer.

"NASCAR elected to go a different route than making it available to the cable operators," said Thom Prevette, a Cox spokesman based at its local headquarters in Chesapeake.

DirecTV has carved a competitive niche in paid TV service by catering to sports fans. It has exclusively offered the NFL Sunday Ticket, a similar out-of-market package for football games.

Robert Mercer, spokesman for The DirecTV Group Inc., based in El Segundo, Calif., said sports programming has set his company apart from cable companies.

The Extra Innings standoff comes down to two points, according to published comments from both sides: the fees paid per subscriber for the programming rights and the placement in the cable lineup of the new Major League Baseball Channel, which the organization plans to launch in 2009. Major League Baseball wants the channel included in the standard cable package, where it would reach the most viewers.

As part of its seven-year deal with Major League Baseball, DirecTV agreed to offer the Baseball Channel with its basic service. Major League Baseball also made DirecTV a minority partner in the new channel.

The Extra Innings package on cable cost $179 in the 2006 season. DirecTV is charging $159.96 over four months this year.

Cox, through In Demand, carries subscription packages for the National Basketball Association and Major League Soccer. Sports fans also can watch nationally broadcast baseball games and NASCAR races on networks including ABC, Fox, ESPN, TNT and the Speed Channel.

Ford said she liked Cox, which still provides her phone and high-speed Internet services, and would have kept its TV service if not for baseball.

Without Extra Innings, she would have had to depend on the Internet to see her beloved Yankees.

"What are you going to do," she asked, "sit at your computer for two or three hours to watch a game?"

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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