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Viewer’s Choice gets into games

Feevee inks NBA rights, looking for MLB, NHL

NEW YORK — Viewer’s Choice, the dominant pay-per-view distributor in the U.S., has drawn up a blueprint to go after the cable TV rights to out-of-market games of Major League Baseball and the NHL.

That’s the word from V.C. president and CEO Mindy Herman, who said that the three-year deal Viewer’s Choice has signed to carry all of the NBA’s out-of-market games is only the beginning.

For now, the National Football League is not immediately on V.C.’s radar screen, as last year, the NFL signed an exclusive deal with DirecTV — the No. 1 satellite distributor of basic and pay cable networks and pay-per-view movies and events — for its Sunday Ticket out-of-market games through the 2001-02 season.

And even when the NFL Sunday Ticket contract comes up for renewal, Rick Gentile, president of Diamond Sports and former exec producer of CBS Sports, said that the NFL may steer clear of a V.C. deal because “cable could infringe on the broadcast-network rights. The growth potential of digital cable to reach a mass audience is greater than satellite television’s.”

Right now, fewer than 2 million of the 68 million cable households have bought digital boxes. But with AT&T, Time Warner Cable and Paul Allen’s Charter Communications, among other multisystem operators, “pouring money into digital upgrades of their cable systems,” the number of digital cable households could quickly shoot past DirecTV’s current total of 5.2 million subscribers, Gentile said.

Cable operators may have to resign themselves to the fact that out-of-market Sunday NFL games will not be on the bargaining table for the foreseeable future, giving DirecTV a weapon with which to induce sports junkies to cancel cable subscriptions and buy satellite dishes.

But while DirecTV also carries the NHL’s Center Ice package and Major League Baseball’s Extra Innings lineup, the deals are nonexclusive, so V.C. has already started negotiations to secure them.

NFL games are by far the most popular of the out-of-market offerings. A spokesman for the NFL said that 700,000 DirecTV subscribers order its Sunday Ticket package, compared with only about 150,000 who pony up for the NBA League Pass.

While declining to discuss subscriber figures, NBA exec VP Ed Desser acknowledged that out-of-market basketball games “are not a mass-audience product. They’re geared to a niche audience of people such as the heavy fan or the displaced fan”– a native of Detroit, say, who has moved to Atlanta and still wants to watch the games of the Detroit Pistons.

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