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Cablevision unveils Garden growth plan

NEW YORK — Madison Square Garden plans to boost production and cable TV and satellite TV distribution of entertainment events such as high-profile music concerts and lavish theatrical productions.

That long-term prediction emerged as one of the highlights of a news briefing held at the Garden here to formally announce that Cablevision Systems Corp., the Long Island-based cable operator, would become the majority owner — and eventually sole owner — of the Madison Square Garden arena complex, the NBA’s New York Knicks and the NHL’s N.Y. Rangers, and the MSG cable TV network (Daily Variety, March 7).

Chuck Dolan, chairman and CEO of Cablevision, cited the telecast of the Grammy Awards last month live from the Garden arena as an example of the kind of production that he wants to get involved with on a regular basis. He also mentioned the 48 performances planned at the Garden in two months for a new production of “The Wizard of Oz” featuring Roseanne, and next year’s scheduled run of the planned theatrical version of the hit 1984 movie “Footloose.”

“We’d love to see the Garden become a virtual studio,” Dolan said, “by extending the box office for many of the Garden attractions into everything from basic cable to pay-per-view.” He added that there’d be even greater demand for both entertainment and sports events in the home because of advances in technology that will soon provide laserdisc-quality digital pictures and CD-enhanced sound.

But Bob Gutkowski, president and CEO of the Marquee Group and former president of the Garden, says Dolan’s plans are more blue-sky than reality, because no performers would want to jeopardize the box office take for their concert tours by allowing the Garden to transmit the shows on basic cable, pay TV or pay-per-view.

Other sources say the various unions that work the shows at the Garden are also against ideas like the pay-per-view telecast of the Garden’s big holiday musical “A Christmas Carol” (which has given 90 shows a year for the past three years) for the same reason: Easy availability of the production on TV could have a poisonous effect on ticket sales.

Sports was an even bigger focus at the press conference, and Dolan acknowledged that some of the sports programming that now goes to cable subscribers as part of their basic package will end up gravitating to separately priced tiers. Cablevision Systems, the sixth-largest cable operator in the U.S., is one of the pioneers in setting up a-la-carte pricing.

Dolan says some of the games of, for example, the Knicks and Rangers will be available over the air through Cablevision’s three-year output deal with WBIS+, a New York-based UHF TV station jointly owned by ITT and Dow Jones, which will also televise selected games of four other N.Y. pro teams, including the Yankees. Other games would continue to be transmitted over the MSG cable network, whose 5.4 million subscribers make it the second-largest regional sports channel in the U.S.

But the new wrinkle is that Cablevision will pull a batch of games off MSG and set up a pay TV channel to lighten the wallets of the fan who insists on getting access to all of the games of his favorite teams, Dolan said. And, in this scenario, the most highly touted games will probably end up getting priced even higher, as part of a pay- per-view package.

Dolan pooh-poohed questions about the antitrust implications of one company’s owning both of the regional sports networks in the N.Y. area, MSG and Sportschannel, as well as two of the city’s most popular teams, the Knicks and the Rangers. “This is the same configuration that existed last week,” Dolan said, pointing out that ITT still has an 11.5% interest in the Garden properties. “When ITT and Cablevision acquired the Garden two years ago, we got all of the regulatory approvals,” he said.

And the regulators will probably take note of the fact that Al D’Amato, the Republican senator from N.Y., and George Pataki, New York’s governor, showed up at the briefing to congratulate Dolan on his purchase.

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