The future of the Empire Sports Network still is cloudy after its parent company, Adelphia Communications, struck a tentative deal this week with Time Warner that should significantly reduce Empire's subscriber base.
The tentative deal will result in Empire being placed on a sports digital tier on T-W's systems in Syracuse and Binghamton and anywhere else that T-W offers such a tier, according to Empire General Manager Bob Koshinski. If T-W systems don't offer a sports digital tier, Empire will remain where it has been before the conflict with T-W arose.
The good news for Empire is it wasn't dropped in Syracuse or Binghamton on May 1, as feared. It also will remain on standard service in Rochester for now. However, Brian Wirth, the vice president for public affairs in Rochester, says the system is looking to start a sports tier that may eventually include Empire.
The deal gives T-W exactly what it wants in Syracuse and Binghamton, placing Empire on a separate pay tier that may give the regional sports network only a small fraction of the 450,000 subscribers it had in the two areas.
"We don't have any numbers to do a business plan and see how this will affect us," Koshinski said.
Anyone with a working knowledge of how cable operates will realize that this arrangement can't be good for Empire. Since cable systems pay a fee based on subscribers, Empire's revenues will be substantially reduced, making it increasingly difficult to turn a profit and raising the specter of the need for cutbacks.
Adelphia's willingness to make such a deal calls into question how much it cares about the long-term survival of Empire. Of course, Adelphia officials have a lot more important things on their plate these days since Adelphia is trying to get out of bankruptcy.
Adelphia is on the hook for about $30 million to $35 million for the rights to Sabres games over the next four seasons. If Empire is unable to find a way to turn a profit, the worst-case scenario is simple: Adelphia could abandon Empire and its employees and just carry the Sabres games on one of its available local channels.
Was anyone else thinking about Thurman Thomas last Saturday when they watched University of Miami back Willis McGahee squirm on ESPN as teams passed him by in the first round of the NFL draft? It was eerily reminiscent of 1988 when Thomas, who had a severe knee injury at Oklahoma State, fell asleep before ESPN cameras as he dropped to the Bills in the second round. Thomas used that draft day memory as an inspiration throughout his career.
The ability of the Bills' brass to keep their plans a secret was evidenced by how long it took ESPN's Chris Berman to speculate that the Bills were going to gamble on McGahee. Berman, who always gets the Bills' pick accurately from "a cab driver," didn't actually say it was McGahee until a second before the pick was announced. Chris Mortensen seemed much better clued in, later saying that Bills President and General Manager Tom Donahoe tipped him off a while ago as long as he kept it in confidence until after the draft.
Donahoe and Tom Modrak should get a copy of the ESPN tape to remind themselves of the skepticism that greeted their gamble. Mike Golic instantly said it was a bad idea and guest analyst Bill Romanowski of the Oakland Raiders said no team can afford to waste a first round pick on an injured player.
The big local winner when the NFL schedules were announced was Channel 4, which will carry at least six Bills road games and as many as 12 games overall depending on how many home sellouts there are. The CBS affiliate did lose two top AFC road contests with Miami (Sept. 21) and Kansas City (Oct. 26) to ESPN's Sunday Night Football schedule. Channel 29 also has the potential to carry two home games with NFC opponents.
Fans sitting in Ralph Wilson Stadium on Dec. 7 when the New York Jets visit will be hoping for a mild end to the fall. CBS is carrying that game at (brrrrr) 4:15 p.m.
A year after many people thought that Drew Bledsoe's return to face the New England Patriots and the quarterback who replaced him, Tom Brady, was deserving of a Monday night game, the NFL is giving it some attention. The Bills' visit to New England on Dec. 27 is CBS' national game on Saturday.
Former Bills receiver Andre Reed will be the analyst alongside Brian Sexton at 1 p.m. today when Empire carries the Fox Sports Network's coverage of the NFL Europe game between the Frankfurt Galaxy and Rhein Fire.
ESPN premieres a new pay-per-view service June 6, when it begins offering up to 24 games from the NCAA baseball championship's Super Regional Round. Called ESPN College Grand Slam, it will cost $19.95. You'd think with three channels, ESPN could find a place to carry the games for free.
Finally, some good news for Empire staffers. For the second straight year, the network won two Telly Awards, a national competition for cable and non-network programs. It won for its coverage of the Bledsoe welcoming rally and a special about Jim Kelly prior to his induction to the Hall of Fame. On-air performers Josh Mora, Bremante Bryant and Bob Trimble, as well as director Marty Kryzskowski, photographer Jeremy Furiani, producer-writer Tim Melligan, graphics designer and editor Mike Hickok and videographers Jon Kilb and Jeff Matthews were honored.