Digital Sports Tiers: 1's and 0's, X's and O's

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Sean Mota

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On Nov. 19, the 1.4 million customers of Time Warner's cable systems in New York and New Jersey — or at least those who care — will see the latest permutation in sports programming: the digital sports tier.

For $3.95 a month, viewers with digital cable will be able to buy a package containing NBA TV, the Tennis Channel, Fuel (Fox's new extreme sports network) and Fox Sports Atlantic, Central and Pacific.

CSTV: College Sports Television should follow soon.

The NFL Network — which aspires to the broader distribution guaranteed by expanded or digital basic — may be next.

The arrival of digital sports tiers comes during a debate over the soaring costs of sports programming — one stoked by Cox Communications, which is balking at proposed increases for ESPN's networks and the Fox Sports regional channels, and would ideally like to move them from basic to pay tiers.

For now, that debate is at the highest level of cable sports. The channels inhabiting the digital sports tiers are inexpensive, and a cluster can be packaged for several dollars a month. Cox's sports and information tier, for example, features services ranging from CNNfn and the Biography Channel to the Golf Channel, ESPNews and the Outdoor Life Network.

Time Warner's six-channel sports tier does not have a defined capacity.

"It depends on the product," Barry Rosenblum, president of Time Warner Cable of New York and New Jersey, said. "We haven't said, `O.K., we don't want more than eight.' " Rosenblum said that the $3.95 price can be maintained, but it depends on the expense of the channels.

"But the goal is to keep prices low to drive penetration," he said.

Roger Williams, the president of Outdoor Life, said he wants no part of being moved to a digital sports tier and has contractual protection for years to come. "It's tough to build a business if your distribution is very limited,' he said. "It's not the best way to go."

David Meister, president of the Tennis Channel, agrees but believes that being on a tier is the best way to get distribution now. "The history of tiers in the cable industry is that over time they tend to collapse," he said. "I think they should do it another way, but it's their business."

But David Stern, the National Basketball Association commissioner, has no objection to NBA TV being offered on a digital tier, or being distributed, at between 20 percent and 50 percent of the cable universe in coming years.

"That'll be fine," he said. "It's a very intense special interest network, and as we grow, we'll be leading the digital revolution." Time Warner will show NBA TV for three weeks before the sports tier is available.
 
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