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EMPIRE TAKES ANOTHER HIT IN SURVIVAL BID

This is what I'm thinking:

Can Empire be saved or will it soon fall off the cable map? That's the question I've been asked frequently about the Empire Sports Network.

The regional sports network's chances of survival took another blow when it was informed that on Dec. 1 it will be dropped from the digital tiers of Time Warner systems in Syracuse, Rochester and Binghamton.

Presumably, Empire is being dropped because the Buffalo Sabres, its top attraction (some would say its only attraction), aren't playing because of the NHL lockout. You certainly understand Time Warner's position, when you consider that Empire doesn't have local sportscasts on the weekends, when the sports calendar is full.

Adelphia is keeping Empire alive while it continues to hope there is a buyer out there.

Though Time Warner's decision costs Empire advertising revenue and subscriber fees, it will still save a substantial amount of money if it doesn't have to pay the extremely high $8.5 million rights fee for Sabres games.

Empire has picked up a schedule of 29 Toronto Raptors games for a small rights fee, but it lost 15 hours of afternoon programming when Howard Simon took his act to WGR-AM 550.

Simon's new job forced him to relinquish his duties as the host of 97 Rock's postgame Bills show. His replacement starting Sunday is Jim Brinson, Simon's former partner on a freelance show that began on Empire after WNSA was bought by WGR's owner and folded.

Brinson left his show with Simon for a radio job in Little Rock, Ark. He has been commuting back to Buffalo to host Eric Moulds' weekly cable show. He'll miss just one of the Bills' eight remaining games due to a prior commitment.

Inquiring minds want to know: Why was John Murphy's play-by-play call on 97 Rock about three seconds ahead of CBS' coverage featuring Dick Enberg and Dan Dierdorf during the Bills' 22-17 victory over the New York Jets?

The station doesn't delay its feed for home games to stay in sync with the cable pictures because that would mean fans in Ralph Wilson Stadium would get the call a few seconds behind. The station does synchronize the radio sound and the TV pictures on road games, such as Sunday at New England. Refreshingly, 97 Rock is more concerned about the paying customers than the armchair ones at home even though its stand unquestionably costs it listeners who want to hear Murphy and analyst Alex Van Pelt while watching the network feed.

Enberg and Dierdorf were just a step slow Sunday in realizing the controversial catch by Lee Evans shortly before the two-minute warning couldn't be challenged because Jets coach Herman Edwards had used all his timeouts and game officials don't take over the challenge procedure until there are less than two minutes left. The Bills also had used all their timeouts, so the call on the field was going to stand because Mike Mularkey couldn't have challenged it, either. Dierdorf and Enberg doubted it would have been reversed anyway.

The CBS announcers were surprised that Edwards pulled quarterback Chad Pennington in the fourth quarter and initially assumed he wasn't injured. I happened to be in New York on Sunday and heard the Jets announcers speculate on Pennington's health early in the third quarter. They wondered whether he would be replaced then.

The Bills-Jets game had about a 33 rating, making it the week's highest-ranked program in Buffalo. The highest-ranked entertainment program in Buffalo is usually "CSI," which gets about a 25 rating weekly. Of course, "CSI" gets a 25 rating for an hour a week, the Bills games average a 33 rating or higher weekly for three or more hours.

WGRZ-TV, which used to carry the Bills on television before NBC lost the AFC rights to CBS, gets its only game of the season Sunday when it simulcasts ESPN's coverage of the New England game.

Fact or Fiction: Buffalo is the No. 2 market when it comes to ratings for ESPN's pregame show, "NFL Countdown." It was a fact last year, when Chris Berman and company averaged a 3.8 rating here, 70 percent above the 2.2 national average. Jacksonville was No. 1 with a 4.2.

Winner of the week in local broadcasting: Bills President and General Manager Tom Donahoe, who was roasted on talk shows for weeks about his drafting of tackle Mike Williams, running back Willis McGahee and receiver Lee Evans, his trading for quarterback Drew Bledsoe, and the free agent signing of safety Lawyer Milloy. They've all been playing well. Of course, a loss to the Pats on Sunday could mean Donahoe will be roasted again. That's the way it is in talk radio, which is long on opinion and short on memory.
e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com