Fox 2 scores with Dodger doggedness

Fox Sports West 2 has scored with its squeeze play — using the Dodgers to sell reluctant cable operators on carriage — and has cracked the 2 million subscriber mark.

After months of struggling to land cable penetration in the face of rejection from angry Southland operators, the regional sports spinoff broke through Monday, inking deals with big players MediaOne (formerly Continental Cablevision), Cox and Falcon.

When it launched the Fox Sports West companion on Jan. 27, Fox shifted Mighty Ducks NHL games and Clippers NBA games from Fox Sports West to FSW2, and puts its 40-game Dodger baseball lineup on the new channel. Despite their slow start, the Dodgers clearly remain a powerful lure for cable subscribers.

The switch effectively put the three pro teams’ broadcasts out of the reach of most cable subscribers, as Fox Sports West 2 languished in a few hundred thousand homes its first few months.

The ploy had fans confused and irked and cable operators fuming. Disney filed suit in early February to force a move of Ducks telecasts back to Fox Sports West but lost in court, while Fox Sports Net countersued Disney, ESPN, the Mighty Ducks and unnamed cable operators for restraint of trade and conspiring to keep the second channel from receiving wider carriage.

The pact with MediaOne — the area’s largest operator — puts FSW2 in more than 550,000 homes with the stroke of a pen, though the rollout will be gradual. It’s scheduled to be added to some areas on Aug. 1, to others on Sept. 1 and to still others sometime in 1998 (pending the completion of system rebuilds in Harbor City, Tujunga and Carson).

MediaOne had long been the most adamant of the operator holdouts, accusing Fox Sports West of extortion in the way it split its pro sports teams onto two channels and extracted a second monthly fee from operators. The first channel was already charging a hefty $1-per-monthly sub monthly fee, and the spinoff tacked on an added 70¢ for each subscriber.

It’s uncertain precisely what concessions had to be made by FSW2 to snare MediaOne, but according to sources, MediaOne had managed to get Fox to budge from the original 70¢ demand, down to about 55¢ to 60¢ along with free carriage for the remainder of 1997. MediaOne was also firm on signing a long-term agreement, and its pact to carry both channels is for 10 years.

Said Jim Matusoff, regional VP of marketing and programming for MediaOne: “This agreement will assure our customers access to affordable local sports product for years to come.”

While Fox Sports West’s distribution stood at fewer than 400,000 homes as recently as mid-March, industry sources theorized that the tough stance taken by operators would start to crumble in the face of the Dodger baseball incentive.

The Rupe factor

The pending purchase of the team by News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch has supplied yet another motive for cablers to pick up Fox Sports West 2 and stake their claim before the sale closes.

Many believe that once he controls the Dodgers, Murdoch will pack the FSW2 slate with as many as 100 games — televising any contest not skedded on KTLA, which holds the team’s over-the-air broadcast rights.

However, Fox Sports West 2 officials refused to gloat on Monday, simply pleased to begin to put the distribution nightmare behind them. Privately, channel executives have been confident that operator resistance would ultimately wear down.

Besides MediaOne, Fox Sports West 2 has also come to terms with Cox (Daily Variety, May 27) and with Falcon Cable. MediaOne, Cox (with more than 300,000 subs) and Falcon (more than 100,000 homes) comprise nearly a million homes combined.

Cox launched the channel on a few of its systems in May and will debut it in Palos Verdes on June 23. Falcon plans to have FSW2 in place on all of its systems by July 15.

In a region with a potential 3.1 million subs, Fox Sports West 2 has yet to strike agreements with three other large MSOs: Time Warner (with upwards of 440,000 subscriber homes in the coverage area), Century (330,000) and Comcast (282,000).

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