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Fans, Sabres lost January games; Flap forced followers from basements to bars to watch cellar team

Today marks a full month since the MSG Networks exclusive regional television carrier of Buffalo Sabres hockey -- went off the airwaves for Time Warner Cable subscribers.

A lot has happened in those 31 days but with little result.

Consider that while both sides have been locked in this Cold War-like stalemate:

*Time Warner watched many Western New York subscribers -- including numerous area bars and restaurants -- switch service to Direct TV or Verizon while the cable giant sprinkled out credits to customers and sent 10 New York City basketball fans on a trip to North Carolina.

*Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman attempted, without success, to negotiate a truce between the two sides, disappointing many hopeful Time Warner customers.

*MSG, despite protestations to the contrary, has clung tightly to industry trade secrets on the expiration of its contracts with TV providers and hosted a half-dozen "viewing parties" in Buffalo and Rochester, urging Time Warner customers to switch providers.

*The Sabres were outscored 32-20 in 11 games that weren't televised on Time Warner in a month that saw the team post an underwhelming 4-7-1 record, as it neared the basement in the Eastern Conference standings.

"Unfortunately, there has been no meaningful dialogue between MSG and Time Warner Cable. They have rejected every overture to meet with us," Dan Ronayne, MSG Networks' executive vice president and general manager, said late Tuesday.

Ronayne said MSG continues seeking to have its programming valued by Time Warner "like other TV providers -- nothing more, nothing less."

Time Warner, meanwhile, maintains MSG reneged on a deal to increase its price by 6.5 percent and now seeks a 53 percent hike for its programming. MSG has repeatedly characterized the figure as "a gross mischaracterization."

"Fans lost 11 Sabres games in January and will miss 10 more in February," Ronayne said, "so, we are continuing to urge fans to switch providers so they won't miss all these games."

Joli Plucknette-Farmen, Time Warner's communications manager, said the cable provider continues to wait on MSG. "We're still waiting for MSG to come back to the table and hoping that when we do meet with them again, they will make a reasonable proposal so that we can get the Sabres back on for our customers as soon as possible," she said.

She said Time Warner is extending its free preview of its 15-channel Sports Pass for customers. The normally $5.95-per-month subscription that features NBA TV and the NHL Network will be available as "replacement programming" for MSG and MSG-plus, she said.

That's not going to help Andy Reardon of North Tonawanda, whose "die-hard" dedication to the Sabres forced him outside his home "eight or nine times" in January. Reardon was one of about 100 people who jammed into Mr. Goodbar on Elmwood Avenue Tuesday night for the latest MSG-sponsored viewing party, to watch the Sabres defeat the Canadiens, 3-1, in Montreal.

"There are definitely times I'd like to sit in bed in my pajamas and watch the game," admitted Reardon, who was wearing his blue Sabres' jersey.

Up and down Elmwood, bars were telecasting the Sabres, suggesting that many either switched or were fortunate enough to have satellite television before Jan. 1. None, however, looked as busy as Mr. Goodbar.

"The only reason we're so busy is because we have the games," said Brad Thomas, manager of Mr. Goodbar, explaining the decision to switch providers earlier in January paid off.

The viewing party no doubt contributed to the crowd. The free food, Sabres souvenirs, a ticket raffle and "more fun" drew Tony Iomi, of the Town of Tonawanda, to the bar. He switched to Direct TV about halfway through January because he couldn't take missing the Sabres. "I thought the whole thing would just blow over," he said. "Even though the Sabres are doing poorly, I wanted to watch the games."

He said Time Warner even offered to knock $70 off his combined monthly cable television and Internet bill to stay with them -- without MSG.

Several readers of The Buffalo News -- and Time Warner customers -- revealed in recent weeks they were given credits by Time Warner when they called to complain about losing MSG.

One reported receiving a $20 credit. Another said he was told MSG "was not something extra" that was paid for, but when he persisted for a reduction, his monthly bill was cut by $2. Then, upon complaining again, he received the $20 flat rate credit.

Others, however, reported being denied credits after calling to complain about missing Sabres games.

Plucknette-Farmen wouldn't confirm the claims because Time Warner, she said, has a "commitment to customer privacy," so it doesn't discuss the issues of individual customers.

"It has not been our policy to offer credits routinely due to MSG's blackout of Time Warner Cable customers because customers don't pay us on a per-channel basis," she said.

"The monthly price of Time Warner Cable includes a package of channels, the network and infrastructure needed to get it to their homes, and the service it takes to keep it running smoothly," she said. "We empower our representatives to work directly with customers, including providing credits when appropriate, to resolve any service issues. Each customer is different, so we work with customers individually."

Meanwhile, the State Attorney General's Office has been quiet for nearly three weeks about the issue after holding meetings with each side in mid-January.

Schneiderman's office on Tuesday declined comment on the issue.

Now, we're in February -- a short month packed with 13 Sabres games.

Three of them will air on NBC Sports Network or NBC, which can be seen by Time Warner viewers. Those games are tonight against the New York Rangers; next Wednesday versus Boston and Feb. 19 against Pittsburgh.