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CSN Houston President 'Growing Less Optimistic' about Reaching Carriage Deals by Opening Day

The Houston Astros open the 2013 Major League Baseball season on Sunday night against the Texas Rangers. The contest, the first for the Astros as a member of the American League, will be telecast nationally on ESPN on March 31.

It could be one of the few that the most Astros fan will get to see on television this year. Comcast SportsNet Houston is carrying 157 of the Astros’ 162-game schedule in its rookie season as the team’s broadcast partner. But with its first Astros' game telecasst set for April 2, CSN Houston has yet to connect on carriage contracts with most distributors in its five-state TV territory.

CSN Houston president and general manager Matthew Hutchings in an interview said that despite ongoing negotiations with large and small providers, which sometimes occur multiple times daily, he was “growing less optimistic” that the RSN was going to be able to reach a deal (s) by opening day.

CSN Houston has carriage on Comcast in parts of Louisiana and Little Rock, Arkansas, as well as Houston. Combined with deals with small providers as Coastal Link, Consolidated Communications, EnTouch and Phonoscope, CSN Houston has about 40% coverage in Houston, the nation’s 10th largest DMA with 2.2 million TV homes.

However, DirecTV, Dish Network, AT& U-Verse, Suddenlink, Time Warner Cable and other providers serving Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas and New Mexico have remained on the sideline since the RSN tipped off last October with coverage of the NBA Rockets.

Sources put CSN Houston’s ask for a monthly subscriber license fee at about $3.40. Network officials would not discuss its rate card.

Asked if pricing was the hold-up to deal-making, Hutchings said he couldn’t “get into specifics, but there are multiple components. It’s a negotiation.”

In a statement, AT&T U-verse said: “We currently don’t have an agreement with Comcast SportsNet Houston. Like all TV providers, we are feeling the effects of ever increasing sports costs, and the impact that has on our customers. We would like to make all of these sports networks available to our customers, but the sports programmers are making it very challenging with their constantly rising prices. Customers aren’t getting anything materially new or different when these regional sports networks launch. The programming is largely the same team games that were previously available on other channels we already carry, so the extra value is not being created.”

DirecTV noted: “We have yet to be able to reach an agreement with the owners of CSN Houston that allows customers to choose whether they want to pay to see Astros or Rockets games or not. We are ready and willing to have that discussion any time so we can begin providing this network. Until then, DirecTV customers can see some of the Astros games this season, including the March 31 season opener, on ESPN, Fox or other national carriers, and hear most local game action on Houston's KBME 790 AM, XM Radio and other regional providers.”

Negotiations aside, CSN Houston, which has hosts I Want CSN Houston area off its web site, continues to pitch multimedia ad messages aimed at informing consumers in the hope of turning the distribution tide. Ads are running on TV, radio, outdoor and digitally in 10 markets: Houston, Beaumont, the Rio Grande Valley, Corpus Christi, San Antonio and Austin, Texas; Lake Charles, Monroe and Lafayette, La.; and Oklahoma City.

Steered by focus groups, the latest campaign centering on "facts and figures" features Hutchings speaking to the camera with a “you deserve the facts” and a “you deserve the channel” message. One spot indicates that Time Warner Cable and Fox Sports continue to invest in RSNs in other markets and that DirecTV, Dish and U-verse have agreed to carry them -- but not the CSN Houston service. Another spot notes that even though fans can’t watch Rockets and Astros games, the providers are not charging less for FS Houston.

 “Where’s the Astros’ discount?” said Hutchings during the interview. FS Houston receives a monthly license fee of over $2.50.

Hutchings said the RSN has forwarded messages from nearly 90,000 consumers who want their providers to offer CSN Houston.

“We’re going to continue to keep working.  Our goal remains to achieve full distribution,” he said. “We want to grow our business by helping [distributors] grow theirs.”