Broadcast Battle: Tennis Channel, Cablevision Remain at Odds

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Only days away from the first ball being struck at the ’09 U.S. Open, The Tennis Channel and Cablevision — the cable provider that blankets the Tri-State Area — have yet to reach a deal that would bring an estimated 239 hours of coverage into the households of subscribers in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

The impasse is nothing new for either party. TTC — launched in 2003 — has long engaged in a grassroots campaign that calls upon tennis fans to petition regional cable providers to put its product on the airwaves.  And for its part, Cablevision has battled over deals with the likes of the YES Network (the New York Yankees) and the NFL Network.

“It’s not coincidental that it’s coming to a head during the Open,” said Ken Solomon, CEO of The Tennis Channel, which, along with ESPN, replaces the USA Network as the Grand Slam’s cable partner.  “The absurdity of it has finally come to light.”

At the center of the dispute is — surprise, surprise — money.  Cablevision wants to dangle the TTC carrot as a bonus to its premium subscribers.  The Tennis Channel insists the arrangement would keep its coverage from 85 percent of Cablevision’s subscribers and is therefore demanding a broader scope.

“We’re certainly not going to go backwards by basically hiding it in the closet on some sports tier and the gold package that goes to only 15 percent of their audience.  We’re not going to do it.  I don’t see how that’s a deal,” Solomon told Inside Tennis.  “That’s not something we’re going to talk about.  We haven’t waited this long for only the sports fanatics who buy the sports tier…They want to keep that customer paying a lot of money, so they’ll throw them The Tennis Channel as a kind of bone.”

Cablevision, which counts TV rights for the Knicks, Rangers, Islanders and Devils among its holdings — asserts that The Tennis Channel has yet to put a reasonable deal on the table.

“With all due respect, that’s just simply a standard response designed to prevent people from understanding what’s really going on,” said Solomon.

So bitter has the battle become that TTC recently launched an advertising campaign that declared: “Thanks for nothing, Cablevision” and depicted a racket smashing a cable box.  The print ads ran in nearly every newspaper in the New York metropolitan area.  All except Newsday, that is, which just so happens to be a subsidiary of Cablevision.

Ironically, by refusing to run the ad (a curious development in a time when cash-starved papers are folding), Newsday has in effect brought more attention to TTC’s mission to spread the gospel of tennis.

“You could argue that it’s the ultimate backhanded compliment,” said Solomon.  “But we’re taking a wink-and-nod kind of approach to this thing.  You have to have a sense of humor; otherwise you’ll blow your brains out.”

While less than a third of TTC’s U.S. Open package will include live matches, Solomon is quick to point out that 72 of the 239 hours will be exclusive coverage.  Solomon, who prior to The Tennis Channel founded the Fine Living Network, also bristles at Cablevision’s assertion that he and his TTC brethren are all about the money.

“My grandmother used to call that the pot calling the kettle black,” he said.  “These guys are only about the money.  They could care less about tennis.  They could care less about the fans.  The fact of the matter is we have built one of the greatest entertainment and sports networks in the entire programming universe.  We’ve done it by spending tens of millions of dollars of our investors’ money — independent investors who believe in the cause and believe that there is a critical mass of people who want to see tennis — and we’ve never raised the price.  The rate card has remained the same since our earliest days.”

On the surface, TTC — which boasts the top 70 tournaments in the world, including all four Grand Slams and the Davis and Fed Cup competitions — would appear to be a cost effective choice for Cablevision.  It would be one of the least expensive national sports networks — cheaper than the Golf Channel, ESPNU or the Fox Soccer Channel.

“We can agree to have business differences with people,” Solomon continued.  “But we think it’s unfair to limit the distribution of The Tennis Channel, particularly when all [of Cablevision’s] competitors are all distributing it broadly.”

Barring an 11th-hour deal, Cablevision subscribers in the Tri-State area who can’t make it out to Flushing Meadows will have to switch to DirecTV, Dish TV or Verizon FiOS.  Or head over to a neighbor’s house.

But Solomon isn’t giving up just yet.

“We’re anxious to make a deal,” he said.

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