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OLN offers lesson in cable-nomics

The euphoria over the Buffalo Sabres' surprising season has sparked fears that two potential second-round playoff games will only be available on a channel, OLN, carried in 10 percent of Adelphia's homes.

It's understandable, if premature. For one thing, the Sabres have to win a first-round series.

But if it happens, it will just serve to remind fans how the cable sports world is changing. It may be fashionable to check Adelphia into the boards for putting the NHL's cable partner on a higher, more expensive tier.

However, it does keep subscribers' bills down. Adelphia carries 74 Sabre games on MSG. It felt the price of moving OLN to a lower tier for a few extra Sabre games that would be on its national package was too high, especially since many subscribers who wouldn't know Ryan Miller from Mitch Miller would have to pay. Cable systems are moving toward the belief that the expensive sports deals should be paid for by the subscribers who watch the channels. That's one reason why OLN is on a higher tier.

The Sabres' TV popularity can be measured by its ratings on MSG. MSG has averaged a 5.1 rating for 59 games this season, up an impressive 70 percent from the 3.0 the Sabres received when the NHL last played. But that's still a fraction of the 32-40 ratings that Bills games typically get. Football is the only pro sport with the popularity to influence cable companies.

OLN hopes fan pressure will get cable systems to move the channel to a lower tier. The argument would be more persuasive in big city markets that don't have the CBC alternative like Western New York. Because CBC carries the conference finals and the Stanley Cup finals in their entirety, we're talking about a maximum of two lost second-round games here. The potential backlash from subscribers already complaining about high cable bills could offset the pressure on Adelphia (or Time Warner when it takes over in May or June) to move OLN. Besides, it is tough to pressure a company that is disbanding.

Of course, we're getting way ahead of ourselves anyway. OLN hasn't announced its playoff schedule. According to Marc Fein, head of programming and production for OLN, the network would ideally like to carry two playoff games each night -- one involving Eastern Conference teams and one involving Western Conference teams. But if Central time zone teams Detroit, Dallas and Nashville make it to the second round of the Western playoffs, the starting times might make it very difficult to carry two games nightly. That would diminish the likelihood that a small-market team like Buffalo would be chosen by OLN. The Sabres aren't a national draw, as evidenced by their absence from NBC's schedule.

If the Sabres play a Canadian team in the second round, there's also a decent chance any OLN games would get double coverage here via CBC anyway.

Finally, OLN has as much incentive or more than Adelphia to make a deal to assure that any Sabres playoff game would get maximum exposure. The primary audience for any playoff game is in the markets where the teams play. By limiting the local audience to the 10 percent who get OLN on one of Adelphia's two expensive tiers, OLN will take a ratings hit that could affect the price it charges for advertising.

Adelphia's Tom Haywood said his company would be willing to negotiate with OLN about making OLN playoff games available to more subscribers. "I'm a Sabres fan," Haywood said. "We're working to see what we can do."

"We're absolutely willing to discuss it, as we'd love a bigger footprint in the Buffalo area," said an OLN spokesman. "Unfortunately, there are some complications with the impending Adelphia sale."

If the nightmare second-round scenario occurs, diehard fans can find ways to see the playoff games without it costing the non-fan anything. They can alway go to the house of a friend who receives OLN on Adelphia or DirecTV (Dish doesn't carry OLN) or head to a local sports bar.

* The local ratings for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament on WIVB-TV were only .1 percent below what they were last year when they were inflated slightly by Niagara University's first-round participation. The local rating is in line with the national numbers, which haven't suffered from CBS' willingness to stream games online.

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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