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Fox puck outta luck

Network's cable ops ticked over hockey loss

NEW YORK — Fox Cable’s regional sports networks are unhappy and disrupted, but ESPN and NBC are shrugging their shoulders over the demise of the 2004-05 National Hockey League season.

The NHL and its players’ union each held separate press conferences in New York Wednesday to make official the grim news that they couldn’t reach agreement on a new contract, putting the kibosh on the whole season.

For Fox’s various regionals, the loss of the entire 1,230-game schedule and the playoffs was a mixed bag. In such cities as Detroit, St. Louis and Boston, which are brimming with rabid fans, the ratings of replacement programming for live hockey games came nowhere near what hockey would’ve chalked up, particularly if the teams had had winning records.

By contrast, in some Southern cities, where hockey is struggling to capture a TV audience, substitutes such as men’s and women’s college basketball, college hockey and poker championships pulled ratings not far from what hockey typically draws.

The replacement programming on ESPN2, the exclusive national-cable distributor of 40 regular-season NHL games, averaged a 0.4 household rating, double the 0.2 NHL games averaged for the 2003-04 season through the second week of February. The most popular ESPN2 substitute was college basketball.

But ESPN was less than thrilled that it will not get any postseason NHL games because those tend to harvest above-average audience numbers, both on ESPN and ESPN2.

ABC carried NHL games last year as part of a broadcast-exclusive deal. Net bowed out in 2004-05, prompting NBC to engineer a two-year, revenue-sharing deal with the NHL that was to begin with seven regular-season games, six playoff contests and Stanley Cup games from three to seven (if necessary).

An NBC spokesman said the network will have replaced 34 potential hours of NHL games with 24½ hours of “profitable programming,” including everything from figure skating to skiing. NBC will give back the remaining 9½ hours to its owned and affiliated stations, which will schedule the time periods locally.

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