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Time Warner, MSG give mixed message; Cable deadline nears, but outlook is unclear

Negotiations between Time Warner Cable and MSG are continuing, or they are not, depending on which side you ask.

A spokesman for Time Warner in Buffalo said Thursday that both sides are still talking and plan to continue until an agreement is reached by the Sunday deadline, when the current contract expires.

"The standard procedure is that negotiations continue until a deal is reached," spokesman Matthew Tremblay said.

However, Michael Bair, president of MSG Media, insisted that the company has not had any meaningful recent discussions with Time Warner after the cable operator rejected its proposals.

"I'm not confident, because we've had two years of this discussion and [Time Warner has] rejected every single one of our proposals, and I don't see them changing their stance in the next few days," Bair said.

Bair was not specific about the proposals made by MSG, despite the very public nature of the company's battle with Time Warner.

Last week, MSG took out a full-page ad in The Buffalo News sports section warning Time Warner Cable subscribers that the cable provider might cancel Sabres games currently aired on MSG. Time Warner, however, disputed the assertion by MSG and insisted that it had never threatened to remove MSG from its lineup of cable channels.

At the time, Time Warner said that it was willing to continue carrying MSG at a 6.5 percent increase through the end of the National Hockey League season. But the cable system also contended that MSG is demanding a 53 percent increase in fees over what Time Warner Cable paid this year.

However, Bair said Thursday that Time Warner has consistently mischaracterized MSG's position to the public.

"This is not about escalating costs or increasing sports rights. Its simply that Time Warner has an old, expiring deal that is not in the ballpark of what other [cable] providers pay," Bair said.

"Fans don't care about rhetoric. They simply want to watch the teams they love, which is why we've been telling fans to switch to other providers so they can continue to watch their teams."

Still, Tremblay noted that Time Warner's deals with cable channels often end up getting signed at the eleventh hour.

"If not, an agreement can be extended. Basically, the current agreement would go into overtime," Tremblay said. "An extension could be granted; I don't know if it will be.

"Time Warner offered to MSG that we extend the current agreement until September 2012 at approximately the 6.5 percent that MSG originally asked for, but MSG refused the offer, he added. "We hope to reach an agreement by the deadline so that there is no interruption of service to our customers."

If there is no agreement, Bair said, it wouldn't be because MSG had not tried to bargain in good faith.

"We want to make a deal with Time Warner Buffalo, because we understand that the Buffalo Sabres are incredibly important to the City of Buffalo," Bair said.

"We run this business to ensure that Sabres fans can watch their games through their local providers, and all we're asking those local providers to do is to have a fair deal with us -- no more, no less.

"The majority of our market is in the New York City area, and that's really where the biggest battle is brewing. It's unfortunate that Buffalo is caught up in this, but Time Warner needs to value the Sabres just like the other providers in the Buffalo market."

email: hmcneil@buffnews.com