fox2/21"/1stjc/mark2nd

DAN TURNER Staff Reporter

Fox Sports Net, frustrated by the refusal of local cable companies to pick up its new Fox Sports West 2 channel, is accusing Walt Disney Co. of conspiring to keep its programming out of Southern California homes.

In an antitrust suit filed in U.S. District Court Feb. 24, Fox claims Disney is planning to launch its own regional cable sports network, and is putting pressure on cable operators to convince them not to carry the new Fox channel.

Disney officials declined to comment on the lawsuit or to say whether they plan to launch a regional sports network.

Cable operators also were reluctant to discuss the Fox suit. Individual cable companies are not currently part of the suit, but they may be added to it later since court papers cite numerous unnamed cable operators as co-conspirators.

Fox Sports West 2 debuted Jan. 27 as a spin-off of West L.A.-based Fox Sports West. The fledgling network is anchored by 40 Los Angeles Dodgers games, and also carries games for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and Los Angeles Clippers.

Signs of trouble appeared even before the network hit the air. Southern California's two biggest cable systems, Continental Cablevision Inc. and Century Communications Corp. both declined to carry the new channel.

So far, Fox Sports West 2 is carried by regional cable systems reaching only between 350,000 to 400,000 subscribers, according to Fox spokesman Vince Wladika. That compares with 4.2 million subscribers reached by Fox Sports West.

A conflict between Fox and Disney first arose in early February, when the Disney-owned Mighty Ducks filed suit against Fox for switching the team from the original channel to the new one. Because Fox Sports West 2 reaches so few people compared with its parent, the Ducks claimed the switch would lead to a loss of ticket, merchandising and other revenues.

A request by the Ducks for a preliminary injunction forcing Fox to move the team back to the original channel was turned down by an Orange County Superior Court judge on Feb. 26. Two days earlier, Fox had filed its own suit against Disney in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

Fox's antitrust suit claims that Disney is planning to launch its own regional cable TV sports network anchored by its Ducks and the Anaheim Angels baseball franchise (another Disney-owned team whose games are now broadcast on Fox Sports West).

Fox officials declined to discuss the suit, as did attorneys representing the company. But Wladika argues that because of the new channel's low cost, something other than price is preventing cable systems from carrying it. Sources say that cable operators are being asked to pay 75 cents per subscriber for Fox Sports West 2, while the original channel costs $1 per subscriber.

"Prime Ticket (the name of Fox Sports West before it was acquired by Fox Broadcasting Co. and Liberty Media Corp.) launched for 70 cents a subscriber in 1985, and it had roughly half the programming of Fox Sports West 2," Wladika said. "(Cable operators) say the price is too high, but how can they say that when back in 1985 they paid roughly the same amount for something that had a lot less?"

The antitrust suit alleges that Disney is misleading local cable operators by telling them that Fox will soon lose the rights to air Ducks and Angels games. Both teams are under contract with Fox through 1998, and according to the lawsuit, Fox has the right to match any competing offer made for the cable rights to the Angels after 1998.

Disney, meanwhile, claims that contract was nullified after it took majority ownership of the team last year, according to the suit.

In addition, according to the Fox suit, Disney officials are using their leverage as a major programming supplier to pressure cable operators not to pick up Fox Sports West 2.

"Disney is in a position to pressure, punish and reward cable operators because it is (a) the owner of the ABC television network ... (b) the owner of the Disney Channel ... (c) the owner of ESPN ... ESPN2 and ESPN News, (d) a joint venturer ... in A & E;, The History Channel and Lifetime cable networks, (e) the prospective partial owner of E! Entertainment Network; and (f) a major supplier of both sports and movie product to cable operators for pay-per-view ...," the suit says.

Continental, the biggest cable operator in Southern California with 565,000 subscribers in L.A., Orange and Riverside counties, maintains that Fox Sports West 2 is a bad deal, considering that Dodgers games are already available on its system through Fox's own fX network as well as ESPN and KTLA-TV Channel 5.

"Seventy-five cents a customer seems to be an expensive proposition," said Continental spokesman Perry Parks. "Ultimately, it's a disservice to the customer, and it drives up the cost considerably for an incremental gain of only 40 Dodgers games."

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.