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SPORTSCHANNEL'S COVERAGE WON'T BE SEEN LINE IS OVERDRAWN HERE

SPORTSCHANNEL'S COVERAGE WON'T BE SEEN LINE IS OVERDRAWN HERE

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WE ALL know that this town is hockey mad. And TV fans here have good reason to be mad.

The Buffalo market is one of only three National Hockey League cities in the United States in which SportsChannel America's extensive coverage of the sport is not carried. The NHL is in 14 American cities.

The other two cities are Detroit and St. Louis.

Buffalo and Detroit, of course, have something in common. Both Great Lakes cities are across the border from Canadian cities and are served by Hockey Night in Canada's Saturday night package. Canada, of course, doesn't carry SportsChannel America.

SportsChannel would like to get all team markets into the fold in the final year of its three-year contract with the NHL, as well as several markets that don't have teams.

When SportsChannel aggressively bid $17 million a year to take over the contract from ESPN three years ago, it had projected that it would have 23 million to 28 million cable subscribers capable of receiving the channel.

As of last week, it only had 10.7 million subscribers, most of them from its 10 regional SportsChannels. That is considerably short of the 15 million subscribers Nielsen requires before it will rate audiences.

In other words, we don't know how many people are watching the service's large schedule of games. We do know that only about 500,000 of ESPN's 50 million subscribers in 1987-88 watched its coverage.

Joel Nixon, the vice president of broadcasting for the league, says: "They have not reached what we or they had hoped to achieve in circulation. Their major problem is distribution. What they do and where they do it, they do well. We have long-term concerns but have not given up on this season."

Nixon says the league has been told that SportsChannel is changing its rate and market philosophy this season in an attempt to add systems and subscribers.

"The emphasis is probably on the rate card," added Nixon.

The theory is that by reducing the price it charges systems it will be able to make more deals.

However, officials with the two biggest cable systems in Western New York -- TCI and Adelphia -- don't anticipate signing up with SportsChannel America.

"Given the number of blackouts we would be subjected to through NHL regulations, the package doesn't make sense to us at this point," said Gus Palmisano, Adelphia-International's vice president for administration.

SportsChannel America has announced a 78-game schedule during the first half of the season.

Nixon admits the league and SportsChannel are disappointed by their inability to get more subscribers.

"We've made no secret of that," said Nixon. "We want them to get a good return on their investment. They are not getting that and we're hearing it from fans in towns that have hockey interest that don't have teams. There are hockey fans that are scattered around who have been served in the past and would like to be served again."

ESPN carried the NHL for three seasons after it took the package away from the USA Network.

SportsChannel has an exclusive negotiating period in which to renew its deal with the NHL, but discussions haven't begun.

The league may not have many options outside of renewing.

Since losing hockey, ESPN has added major league baseball to its extensive college football and college basketball schedules. The baseball season begins in April, just as the Stanley Cup playoffs begin. An ESPN official said the network would listen to the NHL, but it appears to have only Monday and Thursday nights available for the playoffs.

USA Network has reduced its sports commitment and is having success in the evening with reruns of drama series.

TNT, Ted Turner's cable network, has pro basketball and pro football packages that would seem to reduce the need for a regional sport like hockey. After all, TNT is based in Atlanta, which lost its hockey franchise years ago to Calgary.

The Fox Broadcasting Network has gobbled up 133 independent affiliates which in the past might have signed up for a syndicated package.

Prime Network, like Sports-Channel a regional service, would probably experience the same problems in adding subscribers.

Nixon says he hasn't talked to anyone but SportsChannel about the future.

He is still hopeful that some Buffalo systems will hop aboard this season during the playoffs.

But CBC's extensive playoff package is an argument against the local systems paying for something they receive for free.

TCI of Buffalo subscribers will get a bonus this season. In addition to the Hockey Night in Canada package off of Toronto's CBC affiliate, TCI is carrying two regional services that program hockey.

League regulations prohibit TCI from carrying the New York Rangers' 66-game schedule off of the Madison Square Garden Network because Buffalo is not close enough to metropolitan New York.

However, TCI is able to carry KBL's schedule of Pittsburgh Penguins games because of a rule that is kinder to teams in smaller markets. TCI expects to carry 27 Penguin games.

According to NHL blackout rules, TCI can only carry the Penguins games when the Sabres do not play at home.

Sabres fans will notice some differences this season in their coverage. Road games this year have switched from the Sabres' former station, Channel 49, to Channel 29.

Ted Darling remains the play-by-play man, with Mike Robitaille and Jim Lorentz alternating as analysts and intermission hosts. Danny Gare has switched to WGR radio's team.

At CBC, Scotty Bowman (who now is part of the Penguins management team) has been replaced by two men, Steve Shutt and Jim Peplinski.

Harry Neale remains CBC's No. 1 analyst. The play-by-play men are Bob Cole and John Garrett.

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