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A SPLITTING HEADACHE : Spinoff Fox Sports West 2 Creates More Problems for Cable Operators

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the battle between cable operators and program suppliers heats up, the television industry is beginning to call it the Super Showdown.

In Southern California, it could be called Super Showdown West 2, as Fox launches its new regional sports network today. And more than likely, it won’t be showing on a cable system near you.

Of Fox Sports West’s 175 affiliates in four states, about 100 in Southern California were targeted for Fox Sports West 2. So far, only 14 have come aboard. Those 14 represent between 350,000 and 400,000 homes. Fox Sports West 1 is available in 4.3-million homes.

What that means to viewers is this: Unless their cable company picks up Fox Sports 2, they no longer will be able to see Duck and Clipper telecasts and they will miss out on 40 Dodger games, available for the first time on cable this season.

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Nationally, operators are growing tired of rising programming costs in general, but nowhere are they being hit harder than in sports, where teams are looking to television rights as their savior from escalating player salaries.

Already paying 70-75 cents a subscriber per month for ESPN, cable operators recently learned that the cost may rise to $1. The proposed rate hike is the result of ESPN’s efforts to hang on to its half of the NFL cable package it shares with TNT.

But the immediate concern for operators in the Los Angeles market is the cost of adding Fox Sports West 2.

Operators paying $1 a subscriber per month for Fox Sports West 1 are being asked to ante up 75 cents more for Fox Sports West 2.

Fox Sports, countering resistance from cable operators, recently began offering West 2 free through the end of the year, provided the operator begins carrying it by the end of this month. Still, operators have resisted, complaining they’re still going to have to pay eventually.

“Once you begin carrying a channel, it’s difficult to remove it,” said John Hutton, general manager of some of the Southland’s Jones Intercable systems.

That’s why so many operators are taking a wait-and-see attitude with Fox Sports West 2.

“It’s a complex issue,” said David Auger, general manager of Time-Warner cable in the West San Fernando Valley. “You can’t just snap you fingers and add a channel.”

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In some ways, the operators appear as the bad guys, unwilling to cut into their profits a little to give their customers what they want. But some say they have their customers’ best interests in mind, that they’re only trying to keep the monthly bill reasonable.

Robert Thompson, TCI senior vice president for communications, told Multichannel News, “Sports is where the dagger is aimed directly at our customers’ hearts. Networks are content in their knowledge that they can go to their local sportswriters and stir everyone up.”

Fox and Liberty Media jointly own Fox Sports West, which formerly was Prime Sports, and Prime Ticket before that. But Fox Sports West 2 is solely a Fox property.

Fox is trying to convince operators, some of whom complain they have no more room for another channel, that 75 cents a subscriber is a fair price, even though other new sports channels such as the Classic Sports Network, the Golf Channel, Speedvision and Outdoor Life are more in the 20-cent range.

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Even 75 cents may not sound like much. But consider Continental Cablevision. It has 565,000 subscribers on systems throughout the Southland. Continental, now paying about $480,000 a month for West 1, would have to pay another $420,000 or so for West 2. That cost would eventually be passed on to subscribers.

Cable operators say they are being strong-armed into carrying West 2, that they are being asked to pay for a new channel that is little more than the old channel split in half. Essentially, they believe they’re getting one channel for the price of two.

Kitty Cohen, the general manager of West 1, disagrees.

“When we added the Clippers and Ducks, we never asked the operators to come up with an extra surcharge for the extra programming,” she said.

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Fox believes that cable operators will have to carry West 2, no matter what the cost. That’s because Fox will begin offering a 40-game Dodger package this year, the first of its kind--35 home games, five road games. The Dodgers have never been on a nonpay, or basic, cable service.

Without the Dodgers, there would be no Fox Sports West 2.

The new channel will also televise the Clippers and Mighty Ducks, plus UCLA and USC basketball games that are not part of Fox’s Pacific 10 package. Those games are being moved to West 2, which will also offer other UCLA and USC sports.

The decision to move the schools’ events to West 2 was made by Fox and not the schools. Nor was it the schools’ decision to put games, such as the one between UCLA and USC last Thursday, on Fox’s fledgling cable network, fX, which is available in only about 50% of the Southland’s cable households.

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To make Fox Sports West 2 more attractive, some new programming has been added. There will be a high school basketball game of the week, and in the fall there will be a high school football game of the week. Also, West 2 will televise two live horse races from Santa Anita or Hollywood Park every race day.

Is all of this enough to make West 2 a success?

Roger Werner, the CEO and president of Speedvision and Outdoor Life who was the president of Prime Ticket and the president of ESPN before that, isn’t convinced.

“In my opinion, in order to justify the existence of a new channel, you’d better have compelling new programming, not just an extension of what you’re already offering,” he said.

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One company that has been sold on West 2 is Marcus Cable, a national outfit based in Dallas. Marcus will carry the new channel on its systems in Glendale, Burbank and Whittier.

“We think it adds value to our lineup,” said David Intrator, Marcus’ vice president for programming.

Some operators may add West 2 closer to the start of the baseball season. Clipper and Mighty Duck games will be taken off West 1 at the end of the week and be available only on West 2. In the meantime, one Clipper game and two Duck games will be simulcast on both this week.

The decision to simulcast those games was made last week to appease Duck fans. But one week hasn’t appeased them much. Hockey fans are known to be vocal.

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Reader Bob Lowe, a Duck fan from Irvine, writes: “There are a lot of angry Mighty Duck fans. My guess is many cable providers will add the channel when the Dodger season begins. Until then, Duck and Clipper fans lose out. I can’t believe Disney would let this happen.”

Karen Donoghue of Oxnard writes: “I have been impressed with Fox Sports West’s coverage of hockey, but now I won’t be able to see the Mighty Duck games anymore. Fox Sports West told me I have to call my cable company and ask them to carry the new channel.

“First of all, I’m not being paid by Fox Sports to promote and market its new channel. Second, I did call my local cable company, but they are in the midst of being bought out by another cable company and it could be months, maybe years, before they could add more channels.

“It is so unfair that Fox Sports can just cut Mighty Duck games from their programming, and I have no say or choice in the matter. Furthermore, I cannot even listen to the games on the radio because the Mighty Ducks’ signal is so weak. Cable channels have way too much freedom and power to do whatever they want without regulations, or explanations. The consumer is helpless to the whims of their local cable company and the cable channels.”

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The Ducks, who had trouble finding a niche in the crowded market from the outset, at first welcomed the new channel as an opportunity for more exposure. But team officials have become more tight-lipped as fans complain about not getting West 2. No Orange County system is offering West 2.

“I’m not upset about it,” Anaheim Sports Enterprises President Tony Tavares said. “But I didn’t say I wasn’t concerned.”

The team has received dozens of phone calls about West 2, and Duck fans’ postings on the Internet urged calls to cable operators as well as a letter-writing campaign to the team.

“I’m very concerned about the Fox Sports West 2 fiasco,” said Jon Barnett of Laguna Hills, a season-ticket holder and Cox cable subscriber. “I called my cable company, and what they tell you is it’s big bad Fox Sports putting them in a bad position.

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“From their perspective, Fox is using these big ads to prompt calls to the cable company. The cable company says Fox is splitting one channel into two and charging for both. So they say, ‘Here, Mr. Barnett, why not call Fox?’ The bottom line is there’s probably truth in both.”

Fox’s stance is that it needs two channels to handle its sports inventory. The Lakers, Clippers, Kings, Ducks, and UCLA, USC and Pacific 10 basketball often share the same time slot.

“L.A. needs a second regional sports channel,” said Fox spokesman Vince Wladika. “New York has two, Madison Square Garden 1 and 2.”

Cable operators will concede that, at least this time of year, a case can be made for two channels. But not in the summertime.

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“There’s plenty of room for both a Dodger and Angel package on one channel in the summer,” complained one.

Mitch Huberman, vice president in charge of broadcasting for the Clippers, said: “We think Fox Sports West 2 eventually will be a good thing for us, giving us room to televise more games and giving us room for more promotional programming.”

Fox says that besides the Dodgers, Clippers and Ducks, the high school game of the week and the daily horse racing add up to a big selling point.

The first high school game of the week next Saturday is actually two games--Compton’s Dominguez High facing Oak Hill Academy of Virginia, and Mater Dei of Santa Ana meeting Jesuit High of Sacramento in a doubleheader at UC Irvine’s Bren Center. The West 2 announcing team of Bill Macdonald and former Laker Michael Cooper will make its debut.

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On Feb. 5, national letter-of-intent day, West 2 will have a high school prime-time special, “Cal-Hi Signing Day ’97.”

“The high school package will be unlike any Southern California has ever had,” Fox’s Wladika said. “Everything will have Fox-quality production.”

Tele-TV, a new type of microwave television carrier that is owned by a conglomerate of phone companies, secured a supplemental 40-game package last season for $4 1/2 million. It then sub-licensed the package to Fox Sports West for about the same price. That eliminated any financial risk for the troubled Tele-TV, which still plans to launch before the baseball season.

If Tele-TV does get up and running, it could be an alternative for Dodger fans who can’t get West 2.

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But the best alternative would be DirecTV if it begins carrying Fox Sports West 2.

“We’re in negotiations,” was all a DirecTV spokesman would say.

Another source said a deal could be done by March 1.

Tim Krass, vice president of affiliate relations for Fox Sports West, who was one of the original employees of Prime Ticket when it was started in 1985, said, “The difference between now and when we launched Prime Ticket is that now viewers have alternatives, such as DirecTV.”

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Obviously, a deal with DirecTV would give Fox more muscle. The cable industry has been losing subscribers to the mini-satellite dish industry the last 2 1/2 years. But then DirecTV no doubt is well aware that it is negotiating with Fox from a position of strength.

So who’s going to win this battle between Fox and the cable operators?

“Ultimately, the fans will determine the winner,” said the Clippers’ Huberman. “They are the ones who will dictate if the cable operators carry Fox Sports West 2. And I think the fans are going to want this programming.”

Times staff writer Robyn Norwood contributed to this story.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Fox Too

Only the cable companies listed will carry Fox Sports West and Fox Sports West 2 when they split programming beginning today. Fox Sports West will carry the Lakers, Angels, Kings and games from the Pacific 10 Conference basketball package; Fox Sports West 2 will carry the Dodgers, Mighty Ducks, Clippers and UCLA and USC games that are not part of the Pac-10 package:

* CABLE SYSTEM: Area Served (Channel No.)

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* Avenue TV Cable: Ventura, Casitas Springs, La Conshita, Rincon (15; 2-16)

* Booth American Cable*: Victorville (26; 2-TBA)

* British American Communications: Century City (TBA)

* Buenavision: East Los Angeles/Boyle Heights (31; 2-53)

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* Communication Services: Ventura (29; 2-19)

* Cross Country Wireless*: Riverside (14; 2-TBA)

* GTE Americast: Cerritos (52; 2-66)

* GTE Americast: Thousand Oaks (55; 2-45)

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* Insight Communications: Claremont (60; 2-20)

* Marcus Cable: Burbank, Glendale (58, 36; 2-68)

* Marcus Cable: Whittier (56; 2-TBA)

* Marks Cablevision*: San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, Devore (8; 2-TBA)

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* Morningside Community: Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage (30; 2-34)

* OPTEL: Los Angeles County (TBA)

* Committed to launch FOX Sports West 2 in 1997


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