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Feathers Starting to Fly in Cable Dispute

The Mighty Ducks-Fox Sports West dispute, being waged with lawsuits and threats of countersuits, is a low-level skirmish, fought on a far-flung front, between pawns in a much larger battle for power, control and more room on your television dial.

The real fight card isn’t Anaheim hockey team vs. Southern California cable distributor.

The real contest here is Michael Eisner vs. Rupert Murdoch vs. Ted Turner.

Eisner’s Walt Disney Co. owns the Ducks and the Angels, but more significantly, also owns ABC and ESPN. Long before Fox Sports West decided to split in 2, Disney had designs on forming its own regional sports network--featuring, of course, the Ducks and the Angels.

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“They’d be stupid if they didn’t,” a Fox source said Thursday. “Look at SportsChannel Florida, which is

owned by Wayne Huizenga. They have television rights to exhibition Dolphins games, the Heat, the Panthers and the Marlins. And, gee, look: Huizenga owns three of those teams.”

For Disney to create a similar network, the Ducks and Angels need to be free of contractual obligations to Fox Sports West. Fox claims to have the Angels signed through 1999 and the Ducks through 2001. The Ducks contend they are bound to Fox only through 1998, arguing in their lawsuit that the extension through 2001 is now “non-binding” because their games, on Fox Sports West 2 since Jan. 27, are not available on any Orange County cable system.

Two days after the Ducks filed their lawsuit Tuesday against Fox Sports West, alleging “breach of contract,” Fox officials talked about countersuing to “make sure the Ducks fulfill their contract.”

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“I wouldn’t be surprised if a countersuit was filed next week,” a Fox Sports West source said Thursday.

The crux of the Ducks’ complaint is the unavailability of their games in Orange County since the switch to Fox Sports West 2. Currently, no cable operator in Orange County has agreed to carry the start-up station.

The Ducks’ suit charges that Fox Sports West 2 “is available only to between 350,000 and 400,000 subscribers, a small fraction of the more than 4 million subscribers to Fox Sports West, the service to which the Mighty Ducks licensed the rights to broadcast their games.

“Even worse, upon information and belief, no cable operator in Orange County, the home of the Mighty Ducks, has agreed to carry FSW2.”

Fox Sports West 2, owned by Murdoch, has met resistance from many local outlets owned by Turner and Time Warner.

Paragon Cable, a Time-Warner property, has taken to airing anti-Fox Sports West 2 commercials, promising to “not give into intimidation” by Fox to add FSW2 and imploring subscribers to lodge complaints to Fox and the three local professional teams carried by FSW2--the Ducks, the Dodgers and the Clippers.

Other local cable companies have run similar ads, claiming that the high cost of adding FSW2 will eventually be passed down to subscribers.

Fox is charging local operators approximately 75 cents per subscriber for short-term agreements to air Fox Sports West 2. For long-term arrangements (four years to eight years), Fox says it is offering the first year free.

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“Our affiliate guys have been holding six-hour meetings with local operators trying to get them to add it,” said Kyle Eng, director of public relations for Fox Sports West. “Operators have told us they’re getting more calls than they can handle.

“The solution is very simple: Add it.”

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Vince Wladika, Fox Sports vice president of media, said Thursday that the network is “befuddled” by the Ducks’ lawsuit.

“Right now, we are bewildered,” Wladika said. “We clearly have the right to put the Ducks on Fox Sports West 2. We do not need the team’s approval. They’ve even been supportive of the move in public.”

Wladika cited a quote from Duck director of communications Bill Robertson that appeared in the Jan. 20 edition of the Orange County Register, stating that an arrangement that put the Ducks on the same station with the Dodgers and the Clippers would “help” the Ducks.

Robertson refused to comment on the record when asked about the quote.

“Our [stance] is that we’re not supposed to comment on any ongoing litigation,” Robertson said.

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A Fox source said the network has the rights to “televise up to 40 [Duck] games--the contract does not specify where we have to put them. We could put them on the Christian Life Channel, just as long as we televise them.”

According to Nielsen ratings provided by Fox, Duck games on Fox Sports West carry an average rating of 0.6.

“That means about 30,000 homes are watching those games,” Eng said. “Those ratings are among the lowest of any of our pro properties.”

TV-Radio Notes

Roy Firestone spends an hour today interviewing and examining Indiana University basketball Coach Bob Knight on his recurring ESPN series “Up Close Prime Time,” which airs locally at 4:30 p.m. Firestone made two trips to Bloomington and taped six hours of footage with Knight, accompanying him on an early-morning hunting trip and splitting a pizza with Knight and friends at a favorite local eatery. “Anybody who hates his guts--and I hated him for 10 years--might get a different impression of Bob Knight after seeing this,” Firestone says. “I was struck by how emotional, how sentimental and how loyal he is--and how protective he is of that image of him being a schmuck . . . He’s really one of the last vestiges from another time, one of the last dinosaurs.”

Dept. of Timing: A day before his unfortunate Bo Outlaw “banana” comment, Laker broadcaster Chick Hearn was named top radio play-by-play announcer by the Southern California Sports Broadcasters Assn. Other winners included the Kings’ Bob Miller (top television play-by-play announcer), Bill Walton (best television color commentator), Mike Lamb (best radio color commentator) and Irv Kaze (best radio talk-show host). Dodger announcer Vin Scully and the late Jim Healy were inducted into the SCSBA Hall of Fame

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

What Los Angeles Is Watching

A sampling of L.A. Nielsen ratings for sports programs Feb. 1-2.

SATURDAY

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Event Ch. Rating Share Gymnastics: Reese’s International Cup 4 4.3 13 Golf: PGA Pebble Beach National Pro-Am 2 3.8 12 College basketball: UCLA at Oregon State 7 3.0 9 College basketball: Georgetown at St. John’s 4 2.2 7 College basketball: Utah at New Mexico 2 1.4 7 Figure skating: European Championships 7 2.3 6 College basketball: Memphis at Arkansas 2 1.4 4 Hockey: New York Rangers at Philadelphia 11 1.4 4

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SUNDAY

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Event Ch. Rating Share Pro basketball: Chicago at Seattle 4 8.7 21 Pro basketball: Houston at Orlando 4 6.5 18 Golf: PGA Pebble Beach National Pro-Am 2 4.9 12 College basketball: Illinois at Indiana 2 1.4 4 College basketball: Arizona at Washington 7 0.8 2 Hockey: Colorado at Mighty Ducks 9 0.7 1

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Note: Each rating point represents 49,424 L.A. households.

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Larry Stewart is on vacation.


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