Sports junkies eager to tune into Fox Television’s new regional sports channel when it debuts next week will be disappointed if they subscribe to one of Southern California’s two biggest cable operators.
Continental Cablevision Inc. and Century Communications Corp., which together reach about 900,000 cable subscribers in Southern California, have so far declined to add the new Fox Sports West 2 to their lineup of channels.
As a result, the fledgling local sports network, anchored by 40 Los Angeles Dodgers games for the upcoming season, might have trouble reaching its target penetration of 1.8 million cable subscribers by April 1.
Fox Sports West 2 which has been heavily promoted in cable TV and outdoor media is projected to reach only about half its target audience when it debuts Jan. 27.
“We’re having some difficulty (signing up the two big cable operators), and quite frankly, I don’t understand why,” said Fox Sports spokesman Vince Wladika. “It’s the viewers who are going to get screwed.”
Officials from Continental and Century declined comment.
Despite the lack of interest from the two major cable service providers, Fox officials are confident they can bring Continental and Century around by the time baseball season starts this spring, when the allure of the Dodgers will be greater.
Besides carrying the Dodgers, Fox Sports West 2 will air games of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team and the Anaheim Mighty Ducks hockey franchise. It will also cover Los Angeles-area collegiate sports and even high school basketball.
But as of its launch date, it will only be available in selected pockets of L.A. County and surrounding regions.
Cable industry insiders said Continental may be reluctant to pick up Fox Sports West 2 because it doesn’t want to give up its exclusive right to its sister channel, Fox Sports West.
Until recently, Continental and Century both had “cable exclusive” deals to carry Fox Sports West. That means the channel could not be sold to direct broadcast services within the service area covered by Century and Continental.
Within the last few weeks, however, Century is believed to have waived its exclusivity rights to Fox Sports West. But Century still hasn’t signed a deal for Fox’s new network.
West L.A.-based Fox Sports West, previously known as Prime Ticket, is co-owned by Fox Broadcasting Co. and Liberty Media Corp., which is the programming arm of cable giant Tele-Communications Inc.
Besides owning the non-broadcast rights to air games of the Clippers and Ducks, it owns the rights to show the L.A. Lakers, L.A. Kings and the Anaheim Angels.
Because of federal regulations preventing Liberty Media from having a stake in the new channel, Fox Sports West 2 is wholly owned by Fox and is administered out of Fox Television’s headquarters at the 20th Century Fox lot on Pico Boulevard in West L.A., rather than Fox Sports West’s facility nearby on Santa Monica Boulevard.
Last summer, Fox Sports West leased the cable rights to the Dodgers from TELE-TV, the ground-based digital television broadcast system being launched in April by Pacific Telesis Group. But that created a two-fold complication.
First, the network was left with too many pro sports teams to schedule effectively on one channel.
“We have an embarrassment of riches,” said Wladika. “L.A. is a good sports town, with a lot of teams.”
But the second, and probably more important, reason for the creation of Fox Sports West 2 is Fox’s effort to broaden the reach of its sports network in Southern California through TELE-TV.
Although TELE-TV will carry Fox Sports West, the channel would be blacked out in parts of the region covered by the two cable companies.
By creating Fox Sports West 2, Fox hoped to gain leverage over Century and Continental, insiders say. Unless the cable companies give up their exclusive rights to the first channel, they will not be allowed to get the second, Fox officials admit.
Century subsequently agreed to give up its exclusive deal for Fox Sports West, according to network spokesman Kyle Eng. That means Fox Sports West will be available to TELE-TV customers in Century’s service area.
Continental, meanwhile, the biggest cable operator in the region with 565,000 subscribers in L.A., Orange and Riverside counties, appears to be holding firm.
Century’s agreement to give up its exclusive rights to Fox Sports West does not necessarily mean it’s about to pick up Fox Sports West 2, according to insiders. The cable operator might simply be trying to get a lower price for other cable channels owned by Liberty Media.
The biggest cable operator to sign a deal with Fox Sports West 2 as of last week was the Burbank-based local division of Marcus Cable Co. LP, a large multiple system operator based in Dallas. Since late 1995, Marcus has been upgrading its systems in Glendale, Burbank, Whittier, Montrose, La Crescenta and La Canada by replacing coaxial cables with fiber optics.
The new cables give it additional channel capacity, so Marcus will not have to bump any existing channels to carry Fox Sports West 2. The sports network will be available to about 50,000 customers in Burbank, Glendale and Whittier beginning Jan. 27, and will come online for the rest of Marcus’ 90,000 L.A. County customers when the upgrades are completed in their areas, according to Southern California District Manager John Monsen.
“We think the only reason (direct broadcast satellite systems) sometimes steal customers from cable in Southern California is programming,” Monsen said. “We feel Fox Sports West 2 is something we’ll have that our competitors won’t.”
The other companies that have agreed to carry Fox Sports West 2 are mainly small operators, such as the Claremont division of New York-based Insight Communications, which has 9,200 subscribers in Claremont, Artesia, Bell, Cudahy and portions of unincorporated L.A. County.
“We got about 50 or 60 calls from subscribers asking for Fox Sports West 2 (after the channel began its marketing campaign),” said Rob Roeder, general manager of Insight’s local division. “It’s going to be a product people are going to be asking for. Sports products tend to do well in cable television.”