September 17, 2009
The NHL's first games on Versus this season are scheduled for two weeks from today on Oct. 1, with the Washington Capitals visiting the Boston Bruins and the San Jose Sharks at the Colorado Avalanche on a night when Joe Sakic's(notes) No. 19 will be raised to the rafters.
In other words, the time for genuine concern has arrived if you're a hockey fan with a DirecTV subscription that hasn't had Versus on the satellite service since it was unceremoniously yanked on Sept. 1 following a contract dispute.
Good news: Both sides confirm negotiations are ongoing after talks broke down earlier this month; and Jade Ekstedt, spokesperson for DirecTV, said the parties are "very aware" that the clock is ticking to the start of the season.
The less-than-good news: Getting Versus back on DirecTV by the first official puck drop isn't looking particularly promising at this point, according to the network's president.
"The two sides are now talking again, and that's a good sign," said Jamie Davis, president of Versus.
"I'm hoping for an amicable solution, but right now I would have to say that DirectTV is insistent in not budging off this distribution issue. If they stay the way they are, I do not believe this will not be solved prior to Oct. 1, unfortunately."
The dispute, in summary: DirecTV claims it already pays Versus "more than any other independent distributor" and that Versus is asking for a 20 percent fee hike; DirecTV specifically wants "packaging rights" for the network in order to move it into another tier of programming that could carry an additional cost to subscribers.
Versus claims it isn't charging DirecTV above market rate, and that moving to that new tier would "take Versus away from six million subscribers," according to Davis. Check out our earlier coverage for a much more detailed picture of what's at stake.
It's a dispute that started out rather acrimoniously, with DirecTV pulling Versus off the air and placing an accusatory message to viewers in its place. Furthermore, it called Versus "basically a paid programming and infomercial channel with occasional sporting events of interest" on a blistering message on its Web site.
"They're not only insulting our network. They're insulting hockey fans," said Davis. "What really happened was that they didn't tell us they were going to pull us off the air and came out swinging when we thought we were having fruitful, professional discussions. After that, there were no discussions for over a week."
For Versus, the loss of DirecTV hasn't necessarily slowed its ratings momentum. The network's coverage of No. 2 Texas at Wyoming in NCAA football propelled it to the top of the ratings in key male demos last Saturday. Year-to-year this month, Versus said its primetime viewership is up 13 percent, its total day viewership is up 25 percent and its weekend viewership is up a whopping 88 percent thanks in part to football. (This weekend's BYU/Florida State matchup is affected by the dispute, and both DirecTV and Versus said a resolution was doubtful before the game.)
There's no question that Versus has accumulated some attractive properties in football, MMA and auto racing to go along with its crown jewel in the NHL. There's also no question that, for many digital cable services, Versus is a part of basic programming packages.
The question we had for Davis: If DirecTV wants to place Versus on a different tier, isn't that their right? Shouldn't the marketplace decide whether it's the correct move or not?
Davis said the clearance issue goes beyond the viewers. It affects relationships with leagues and with advertisers. "Taking [Versus] away from six million subscribers is something we can't live with," he said.
Right now, millions of hockey fans that are affected in this dispute are wondering if they'll have to live without Versus's coverage at the start of the season. At some point, the NHL may have to become a more active player in this dispute as time runs short.
We asked Davis about the shrapnel the League is receiving from critics about this dispute, the latest bit of evidence for the "Get off of Versus" crowd. He reiterated that the NHL's numbers on Versus have been climbing and that the last postseason was the highest rated on cable since 2002, no doubt bolstered by the Alexander Ovechkin(notes)/Sidney Crosby showdown and a few Cup finals games between the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins.
"The NHL is very squarely behind us," he said. "And remember, DirecTV pulled us off the air."