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EMPIRE IN DANGER OF LOSING ROCHESTER, SYRACUSE OUTLETS

Rochester businessman B. Thomas Golisano may need a satellite dish at home to watch his Buffalo Sabres on Adelphia's Empire Sports Network next season.

After eight months in which they carried Empire without a contract, Time Warner's cable division in Syracuse is replacing the regional sports network May 1 with the Outdoor Life Channel. T-W's Binghamton system will also drop Empire that day if continuing negotiations aren't resolved.

And Time Warner's Rochester system could be next to say goodbye to Empire on June 1. That could be a life-threatening blow to Empire, have ramifications for Golisano's plans to expand Sabres' interest in his hometown and probably provoke viewer outrage.

The dropping of Empire in Syracuse (250,000 households), Binghamton (200,000) and Rochester (300,000) would add up to almost half of its 1.6 million cable households and cost it between 30 percent and 40 percent of its revenues.

"This is a very important issue," said Bob Koshinski, Empire's general manager, "because to be a true regional sports network you have to reach beyond your inner core. This would be our three major territories (outside of Buffalo) across New York State.

"It is my understanding that there are issues at the corporate level between the two companies. They must get resolved before we have a solution to our situation."

However, Jeff Unaitis, the spokesman for Time Warner in Syracuse, said the decision to remove Empire is a local one that was made because T-W hasn't had a contract and it has an opportunity to add a channel that subscribers have been requesting.

Koshinski, who says Empire is the least expensive regional sports network on their system, was asked to consider allowing it to be placed on a new pay-sports digital tier. He is reluctant to do that because it would give Empire only a fraction of the subscribers it now has on the Syracuse system. Similarly, Binghamton is looking for cost-saving alternatives to carrying Empire on its standard service.

Empire hopes that negotiations between top-level Adelphia and Time Warner officials will be resolved before May 1, since it is difficult to get back on a system once you are removed. The issues between Adelphia and Time Warner apparently go back to the days the Rigas family was still in control of Adelphia, well before the contract between T-W systems and Empire expired in August.

Empire carries almost all Sabres games and provides extensive coverage of the Bills. Syracuse viewers might miss a weekly Empire show, "Inside the Orange," which features appearances by football coach Paul Pasqualoni and basketball coach Jim Boeheim during their team's seasons.

The program was especially relevant during Syracuse's recent run to the NCAA men's basketball title. And Empire also carried a rally live this week celebrating the title in the Carrier Dome. However, local Syracuse stations obviously gave that story a huge amount of attention.

If subscriber reaction is strong, Time Warner's divisions could face a public relations problem by dropping Empire. But, as a dispute between a new regional network and a cable company in New York City that took the Yankees off cable last season illustrated, cable companies often are more worried about making favorable deals than pleasing sports fans.

Empire is assured of being on in Syracuse, Binghamton and Rochester on DirecTV and the Dish Network, satellite services that are becoming an alternative to cable and its political games.

Short takes

Andre Reed is the latest former Buffalo Bill to head to the broadcasting booth. The Bills' all-time leading receiver will work two games in May for Fox Sports Net's coverage of NFL Europe. The games are carried by Empire.

Inquiring minds want to know: What happened to 97 Rock's Gary Pufpaff? According to sources, the Bills station let the full-time sports director go in a cost-saving move. Channel 4's Paul Peck is now doing sports in the mornings on the station as a part-timer. Translation: He comes cheaper than Pufpaff. If Pufpaff doesn't get a full-time radio job before the season, there's a chance he'll return to 97 Rock to help out on the Bills' pregame show.

The elimination of the Detroit Red Wings from the National Hockey League playoffs is a big blow to the league and to its TV partners, ABC and ESPN. Detroit is the best TV hockey market in the country. Buffalo is also one of the top TV markets, though the Sabres' failure to make the playoffs for the second year in a row seems to be reducing local NHL interest. The Wings' loss to Anaheim last Saturday scored only a 1.8 rating on Channel 7.

It's too early to declare the Arena Football League a TV success, despite the publicity campaign being launched by team owners and NBC. The primary reason it has a chance to succeed is because it is incredibly cheap programming. The arena game carried by Channel 2 on Sunday opposite the final round of the Masters and a regular-season NBA game averaged a .7 rating. Paid programs often do as well.

On April 27, ESPN and ESPN2 viewers will play the game, "Where in the Sports World is Kenny Mayne?" The cable networks will carry the NFL draft, an NBA playoff game, an NHL playoff game and Sunday Night Baseball, and Mayne will attempt to make live on-air appearances at all four events.
e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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