Tennis Channel, the station that brings coverage of all the four majors in the sport plus 70 tournaments and Davis Cup, has been blacked out to millions in the New York-area. This occurred at the start of the second week of the U.S. Open when the network cut its access to two of the largest cable networks in the country, Cablevision and Verizon Fios. As part of the National Cable Televison Cooperative (NCTC), Cablevision and Verizon both aired Tennis Channel until September 4 of last year when Tennis Channel pulled its feed off of the two cable giants, “demanding significantly higher fees,” said Cablevision in a statement.
Tennis Channel, at the time, countered with its own version of the split, saying in a statement, “By not agreeing to the new NCTC guidelines, as many other NCTC members have done, Cablevision has chosen to drop Tennis Channel and no longer offer it to its subscribers.” Both Verizon and Cablevision are locked in a dispute with the Tennis Channel over fee increases and the issue of placing the network on basic rather than expanded cable packages.
Tennis Channel public relations director, Eric Abner, said that since the station has grown from 3 million subscribers to 30 million, since Tennis Channel made its debut in 2003, they didn’t want to be part of sports tier programming anymore. Instead, Tennis Channel is only signing deals with cable providers like Dish, Direct TV, Cox, Time Warner and other big networks to be a part of their digital basic level. Viewer can only buy sports tier programming by paying an extra monthly fee. Which is mostly only done by young male viewers while Abner claims that 50 per cent of Tennis Channel viewers are female, making the channel a more desirable station. Abner also pointed out that unlike the Golf Channel, which is owned by cable giant, Comcast, and has a reported 80 million subscribers, the Tennis Channel owns coverage to all four majors of the sport.
Tennis has always been a more difficult sport to cover because it is hard to slot into conventional programming. A match in a major, can run as long as 5 1/2 hours, derailing scheduled programming. But Abner says that tennis programming is as valuable to advertisers as golf.
Many tennis viewers in the New York City region have been unable to switch providers to a Tennis Channel-friendly cable network because their buildings are locked into either Cablevision or Verizon. Abner says a deal with Verizon could be imminent, maybe even before the Australian Open starts play next Monday, January 16th. But calls to Verizon led to no similar disclosure from the cable provider.
Cablevision tennis fans should definitely not hold their breath for the return of Tennis Channel to its airwaves. A feud between the network and station goes back to 2009 when Cablevision, four days before the Tennis Channel was to broadcast its first U.S. Open, joined the NCTC just to receive favorable subscription rights. Abner says Tennis Channel told Cablevision back then that the station had gotten too big and added much more programming and subscribers to continue the terms of the the old NCTC deal when it expired, as it did on Sept. 4, 2011, and it would not continue to allow cable providers to carry it on its sports tier package. But Cablevision did not broker a new deal with Tennis Channel. Abner says the network bilked its 100,000 viewers who watched Tennis Channel on its sports tier package by charging them $72 a year extra when Tennis Channel was basically getting paid only $2 for every additional Cablevision viewer.
Tennis Channel recently won a lawsuit against cable giant, Comcast, to receive access to its basic programming when courts ruled that since Comcast owns the Golf Channel and has it on its expanded coverage, it would have to provide the same access to the Tennis Channel. Abner points out that one of the big criticisms of the Tennis Channel, that it only shows the weekend matches of the smaller tournaments it broadcasts, could be eliminated if cable providers paid a fair rate to Tennis Channel for its broadcasting.
“We could be televising the Los Angeles and Newport tournaments and many others,” said Abner, “from the first match on Monday.”
Abner says Tennis Channel is “very sympathetic and apologetic. The timing was horrible,” referring to the blackout starting at the beginning of the second week of the U.S. Open. Kevin Laverty, a spokesman for Verizon said at the time, “Tennis Channel is using its customers as a bargaining chip.”
As of now, Cablevision and Verizon cable television-holders are going to have to rely on ESPN’s and the internet’s coverage of the upcoming Australian Open. Many are locked into building or television-phone-internet package deals that makes it either impossible or difficult to switch providers. Tennis Channel’s position is that it doesn’t want to be seen only on niche programming anymore. It wants higher licensing fees and broader distribution so they can receive higher advertising rates.
The bottom line is that tennis fans could care less what the crux of the dispute between the cable companies and the Tennis Channel is; they just want to watch tennis. But complaints and appeals from tennis fans to the cable providers and the network have seemed to have fallen on deaf ears.