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MSG and Time Warner take Sabres standoff public

Networks have gone public in their current standoff that threatens the airing of Buffalo Sabres games for Time Warner customers starting Jan. 1.

Tuesday's Buffalo News carried a full-page ad, in the sports section, from MSG.

"Time Warner Cable Might Cancel Your Sabres Games," says a huge headline below a photo of Sabres goalie Ryan Miller.

The MSG ad also directs readers to a toll-free phone number, 1-888-SABRES3, and a website, www.KeepMySabres.com, which provide a petition and information on how to switch TV providers -- to FiOS or DirecTV.

Time Warner issued a press release late Sunday, pledging not to take MSG off the air through the National Hockey League season.

A closer reading of the release, though, shows there is no guarantee that Sabres games will remain on Time Warner early next year.

"To be clear, Time Warner Cable has never threatened to, and will not, remove MSG/MSG from our lineups," states a letter Time Warner sent to MSG Media on Sunday. "That decision rests squarely with MSG. The channels will only come off Time Warner Cable systems if MSG takes them away."

What is clear is that the dispute continues, with each side engaging in posturing that seeks to paint the other as the possible bad guy. That often happens once negotiations move from the bargaining table into the public eye.

"These deals normally don't get done until the 11th hour," one source familiar with the negotiations said Tuesday. "I think it will get resolved [in time], and if it doesn't, maybe it will cost viewers a game or two."

The dispute affects the airing of Sabres and New York Knicks games in Western New York. Downstate, the contract flap could affect viewers of Knicks, New York Rangers, New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils games.

The issues are a bit murky, especially when the two sides provide little context for the negotiations.

Time Warner claims that over the summer, MSG offered to renew the contract for three years at annual rate hikes of 6.5 percent.

Now Time Warner says it is willing to continue to carry MSG at a 6.5 percent increase through the end of the NHL season. But the cable system also claims that MSG is demanding a 53 percent increase in fees over what Time Warner Cable paid this year.

Time Warner also claims that MSG is demanding that the entertainment channel Fuse be carried by Time Warner as part of a new agreement, costing the cable company millions of dollars.

On Tuesday, MSG battled back, issuing a statement claiming that "Time Warner Cable has grossly mischaracterized our negotiations."

"MSG has sought only to secure fair and reasonable terms agreed to by other distributors for our programming," the statement continues. "Unfortunately, Time Warner Cable has rejected every offer we made to them over the last two years."

Meanwhile, the dispute drags on, heading toward a New Year's deadline. The Sabres schedule shows that the team has 11 games slated to air on MSG in January, including games on Jan. 3, 6, 7 and 10.

email: gwarner@buffnews.com