Blackout warning as Comcast sports network pitches a surcharge

Cliff Lee in spring training against Boston. At least 33 more Phillies games will be on cable.
Cliff Lee in spring training against Boston. At least 33 more Phillies games will be on cable. (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 27, 2014

Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia, already one of the nation's priciest regional sports networks, is seeking a subscriber surcharge on behalf of the wallet-busting, 25-year, $2.5 billion TV rights deal it negotiated with the Phillies in January.

As part of the deal, at least 33 Phillies games will relocate from the over-the-air - and free - TV station WPHL17 to the cable sports network.

Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia is asking pay-TV operators, including Comcast itself, to pay for those additional games on cable, according to multiple pay-TV operators who declined to be identified.

The sports network has warned that it would black out 33 Phillies games on the TV systems that decline to pay.

Comcast Cable has agreed to the extra charges. Pay-TV operators will either pass the surcharge along to customers with cable-TV rate hikes, or absorb the new costs. Comcast said it has no changes to announce to its cable rates.

Verizon Communications Inc.'s FiOS TV service "has not yet reached an agreement regarding the surcharge," company spokesman Lee Giercynski said Tuesday.

DirecTV and Dish, the nation's two satellite-TV operators, don't carry Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia, which also televises the Sixers and Flyers.

The quick take: People who watched Phillies games only on free rabbit-ear TV will go from watching about 50 games to fewer than 20 games.

Comcast Sports Philadelphia, now part of Comcast-owned NBCUniversal, confirmed the surcharge but declined to specify the amount. Pay-TV operators also declined to specify the amount, citing confidential negotiations.

Under the previous Phillies TV contract, Comcast SportsNet televised 100 Phillies games and WPHL televised 45 games.

With the new contract, Comcast brings all the regionally televised Phillies games under its corporate umbrella on the cable sports network or NBC10.

There will be at least 133 games on Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia, and 12 or 13 on NBC10. Fox, TBS and ESPN also have national TV rights for Major League Baseball games, including those of the Phillies.

WPHL is part of the Tribune Broadcasting Co. and televised 90 Phillies games in the mid-1990s. Phillies games, like most professional and big-time college sports games, have retreated in the last decade behind the TV pay wall, where they can be part of the cable bill.

Vincent Giannini, vice president and general manager of WPHL, said Tuesday that his station will air at least one Phillies game, on April 16, because of the oddity of a "triple conflict" - Sixers, Flyers and Phillies playing on the same night.

"There is some disappointment," Giannini said, regarding the loss of the Phillies games, "but we had a great . . . run."

WPHL acquired Big Bang Theory and Modern Family reruns but, Giannini said, "It's hard to replace live sports."

A 24-page report on the sports programming costs from J.P. Morgan released on Tuesday listed Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia as the nation's sixth-most-expensive regional sports network, costing cable companies $3.90 a month per subscriber, a cost then passed on to customers. That cost is significantly more than most general-interest national cable channels.

"Sports have emerged as far and away the most valuable entertainment programming in the U.S.," wrote Alexia S. Quadrani, managing director and media analyst with J.P. Morgan, adding that "advertisers increasingly turn to sports to reach large audiences."

Madison Square Garden/MSG, at $5.44 a month, or about the monthly cost of ESPN, tops the list as the most expensive regional sports network, according to the report.

"Comcast SportsNet is proud to offer viewers additional Phillies games in 2014 and pleased that we've already reached agreement with the vast majority of our affiliate partners. We are in negotiations with a remaining few and believe they recognize the value these additional games present to their customers," NBC Sports Regional Networks spokesman Tim Buckman said in a recent statement.

The network is looking for the surcharge during a season in which the Phillies could struggle, and fail to send TV ratings soaring.

The Phils won 73 games in 2013, their worst season since 2000. The majority of their aging and expensive roster was retained for this season. Opening day is Monday at the Texas Rangers.

Staff writer Matt Gelb contributed to this article.



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