November 10, 2009
One look at the Puck Daddy inbox over the last few weeks reaffirms that DirecTV is winning the war of attrition in its stalemate with Versus. Earlier this season, we'd receive a few emails a day from fans enraged at both sides of the dispute; they've been reduced to a trickle now, and the fact that the NHL's cable partner is 'network non grata' on DTV seems like it's become the norm.
Versus told us this morning what it's told us in previous conversations: That negotiations are ongoing and that there is a "zero total dollar increase" on the table that DirecTV has yet to counteroffer, while DTV continues to claim Comcast is asking for more money to air Versus programming. It's a faceoff in which neither side is blinking, thanks to DirecTV not seeing an overwhelming number of viewer defections over Versus and Versus being able to boast about record ratings despite not appearing on DTV airwaves.
Multichannel News had an update over the weekend, and pointed to one reasons why Versus hasn't been hit hard in viewership totals:
The ratings amelioration has come without DirecTV's 14 million-plus homes, as much of that subscriber loss has been made up by sneak previews on a number of cable operators and Dish Network, which has provided Versus a full berth of its homes. As such, Versus' sub count has only declined to 71 million homes from 75 million, before the DirecTV drop.
The Dish free preview, though, is slated to end on Nov. 30. However, sources familiar with the negotiations indicate that Versus and Dish are moving toward a more permanent, expanded placement for the network.
That's good news for Versus, but doesn't exactly move the puck on these talks with DirecTV. What will? It's a long-shot, but Comcast's talks for acquiring NBCU might become a factor.
Some observers in the sports TV community say another factor that could perhaps impact the Versus-DirecTV stalemate is Comcast's reported push to form a joint venture partnership with NBC Universal. They point to the potential for Versus to add replays of Notre Dame football games, and/or a pair of live Fighting Irish contests that NBC Sports can contractually shift to cable. Moreover, Versus would likely become one of NBC's stable of Olympics networks for London in 2012 (the deal wouldn't likely be closed in time for the upcoming Winter Games in Vancouver next February) and beyond, as expected to bid for the 2014 Olympics in Socchi, Russia and Rio De Janiero in 2016.
"DirecTV is playing a game of chicken. If Comcast gets NBCU, Versus could add some additional properties and become a stronger network. They could pull the offer and price might go up," said one executive familiar with the Comcast's thinking.
Again, that all seems so far down the line that it won't affect the current stalemate between Versus and DirecTV, but we're not an "executive familiar with the Comcast's thinking," so who knows?
We're on the record as saying that an NBC/Comcast merger would dramatically change the NHL's television landscape. Not sure if it does anything in this DTV/Versus mess. Keep in mind, however, that this battle has yet to spill over into Comcast's local sports networks on DTV; if Comcast eventually uses NBC properties as leverage, we could be seeing World War III between these media giants.
We're hazy on DirecTV's end game here when it comes to Versus. If it's the elimination of inflated fees from Comcast, that's on the table. If it's the ability to place Versus in a lower level of distribution, that's within DirecTV's rights; but to ask subscribers to ante up for a network it's spent the last few months disparaging as a collection of informercials seems counterproductive at the least.
Dish Network is adding viewers, but not an overwhelming total. Whatever the resolution here is with Versus, it appears to be DirecTV's finger on the trigger. Give them credit: This dispute has angered millions of hockey, football and general sports fans, and DTV has weathered the storm -- at least for the first two months.
One more hockey television note: Sports Business Journal has a piece on League-owned networks, and NHL Network was included in it. From SBJ, what's ahead for the NHL Net from COO John Collins:
One of the reasons the NHL depends on NHL Network for live games, highlights and preview shows is to give its viewers content that is in short supply elsewhere on TV.
"As of right now, we think the NHL is not getting its fair representation in the broader world of sports," Collins said.
In addition to live games, Collins expects to bolster that programming with highlights and inside access that networks don't have. He expects the better programming will play a part in helping the network expand its cable and satellite distribution footprint.
"Our longer-term plan is to get that network as broadly distributed as we can and really deliver on the promise of serving these fans, primarily with access," Collins said. "It's live game content, but it's also access that they can't get anywhere else."
Do you folks watch NHL Network? On The Fly is an indispensible highlights show, even with the banal commentary. But we find -- and this isn't a new gripe at all -- that there simply isn't enough there to rival, say, the MLB Network's coverage.
What do you want to see on NHL Network to improve it?