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Charter scales back ESPNews blackout

Charter Communications scaled back the number of homes in which ESPNews would go dark this weekend, pulling the sports news network off just 285,000 homes.

Late Friday, the fourth largest MSO said it planned to take the network off systems serving 850,000 of the 1.2 million Charter subscribers getting ESPNews. Charter, which boasts seven million subscribers, had said it would pull the news channel off any system where it was carried on an analog tier, in part to keep commitments to other programmers like Oxygen and FX that had been promised that valuable slot.

But at the last hour, systems serving around 600,000 subscribers, primarly in Wisconsin, pulled back from pulling the ESPNews plug. Those systems had largely been planning to add TechTV, a computer TV network owned by Charter's controlling shareholder Paul Allen. But they lacked a firm commitment to replace ESPNews, and so agreed to keep the network on. Charter said it was easy to keep ESPNews on digital tiers because it had more flexible capacity than on congested analog tiers.

"We're still trying to figure out where we're on and where we're off," said an ESPN executive. Systems that lost ESPNews include Cleveland, Tenn., which added FX or Telemundo; Columbus Ga., which added CNN/SI; Morristown, Tenn, which added Odyssey; Traverse City, Mich., which added Tech TV; S. Fort Worth, Tex., which added Oxygen; and Waynesville, N.C., which added FX.

The two companies are in a dispute over how much of ESPNews' product the network will be able to stream over the Internet. ESPN's view, according to the executive who preferred to remain anonymous: "There is only one issue in this dispute: Charter wants to restrict our distribution of ESPNEWS content on the Internet." Charter counters that it wants to protect itself and its customers from charging its customers for programming they would be able to access for free online.

A month after telling Charter it would deauthorize the news signal, ESPN backtracked last week and told Charter it would allow the MSO to continue carrying it.
- John Higgins