Variety Editorial

It’s getting ugly in the sports TV trenches and viewers, as usual, could suffer the most.

Cox Cable, the nation’s No. 4 system, has defiantly announced it will not assent to the aggressive carriage fee increases looming when Cox reups with ESPN and Fox Sports.

This scorched-earth tactic could black out increasingly busy channels on the system that serves sports-obsessed cities like Cleveland and Phoenix. Cox, of course, would lose ad revenue from select markets.

Disney and Fox, mindful of the powerful growth engines their sports broadcasting empires have become, are taking an increasingly hard line on rates. They remind cable systems of the potent male viewers that advertisers covet and the sports channels consistently deliver.

One new worry for Disney is if Cox balks, then subscribers could flee to News Corp.’s DirecTV satellite service, though Cablevision says it lost only 50,000 subs when it pulled the plug on New York Yankee games in a similar flap.

Like the labor disputes that have too often blemished the reputations of the sports themselves, the fee battles unfairly leave fans in the lurch. Politicians have already begun grumbling that the tactics constitute price-gouging. That may be extreme, but congloms and cablers need to be mindful of the fact that fans must be enticed to stay tuned if this new profit injection is to last.

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