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NCTC Members Reach Tennis Channel's Distribution Net At Midnight

At the stroke of midnight on Sept. 4, more video subscribers for some members of the National Cable Television Cooperative will be able to see Tennis Channel's continuing coverage of the strokes being delivered at the U.S. Open Tennis Championships. For others, the network's presentation of the Grand Slam event will land out.

The Sunday morning deadline is when a new multiyear, master affiliation pact with the NCTC for digital-basic positioning goes into effect, and the co-op's original nine-year contract with the network, which called for sports-tier carriage, expires. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Tennis Channel's monthly rate card is reported to range from 14 cents to 18 cents per subscriber.

Individual members of NCTC, the Lenexa, Kan.-headquartered outfit that negotiates programming contracts and purchases hardware for nearly 1,000 member companies, have the option to accept or pass on the new affiliate agreement.

As of presstime, an NCTC spokesman said that "a significant number of members" had indicated that they would "discontinue" their relationship with Tennis. However, "many more members will renew than will drop," he said, without specifying the number of systems or the subscribers they service.

The spokesman said the decisions by those who have elected to renew were "an economic one. It's not the cost per subscribers, but the number of subscribers that have to pay the fees."

For his part, Tennis Channel chairman and CEO Ken Solomon said the NCTC's deal is in keeping with all of the affiliate pacts the network has signed since he joined the network in 2005, when it counted some 3.5 million subscribers.

Solomon would not discuss NCTC pricing, but did say that the network continues to take the risk of investing in rights, talent and production enhancements as it looks to broaden its subscriber base. He maintains that Tennis covers a sport with broad appeal, whose fans are both affluent and well-educated, and thus warrants significant penetration. Prior to his arrival, most of Tennis' distribution deals were for sports tiers, placement that Solomon avers constrains ad-supported networks from growing broadly. Tennis currently counts some 30 million subscribers.

When it signed its original NCTC pact, Tennis did not sport the comprehensive lineup it does today. The network didn't hold the rights to any of the sport's four major "Grand Slam" events or U.S. Davis Cup matches, present a year-round schedule with the top-100 tournaments in the sport, or feature high-definition programming. All told Tennis presents some 3, 500 live match hours annually, including 75 live hours from the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, Queens, where it will feature 300 hours in total. That's highlighted by a pair of exclusive primetime windows on Saturday and Sunday night.

While Solomon's not sure what will happen in the short-term, relative to the Sunday morning deadline,  he said "we're confident in the long-term that we will have a net gain of subscribers with NCTC's membership."

It was unclear at press time, on what side of the net Cablevision would fall with NCTC's new distribution deal. The New York DMA's predominant cable operator in August mailed post cards to its subscribers indicating that it has been working to extend its agreement with its the network, but "it is possible that Tennis Channel may no longer be available after Sept. 3."

On Thursday, Cablevision issued the following statement: "The Tennis Channel agreement runs until Sunday, we've urged them not to pull the plug and extend it. Under any scenario, Cablevision customers will see every important U.S. Open match on ESPN 2, CBS, in 3D and through the comprehensive free online offerings of the USTA, which can be viewed on the computer or on the television through our Optimum Link service, which displays anything on the PC on the TV."

Solomon, in an interview, said Tennis would "not pull the plug" and expressed hope that Cablevision would "abide by the new NCTC contract."

Tennis, which for years had been negotiating for better positioning with Cablevision, and later equivalent carriage of the MSO's high school sports service, MSG Varsity, became part of the operator's sports tier, after it became an NCTC member on Aug. 26, 2009, just days before the Open opened that year.

The network said it had legal issues with Cablevision's unilaterally putting out a press release about its wont to launch the service and that it wasn't given a 30-day notification period to make its signal available. As such, Tennis elected not to authorize the signal and none of its 240 hours of coverage from its inaugural presentation of the U.S. Open was available to Cablevision subscribers.
Tennis finally granted the signal authorization on Sept. 24, 10 days after Juan Martin del Potro defeated Roger Federer to end that year's tournament by capturing the men's singles title.
Since then, Tennis has been available as part of the MSO's iO Sports and Entertainment Pack on channel 399 and HD channel 795. That package, comprising 23 networks some in both standard- and high-definition formats, retails for $6.95 per month. Sources indicate that some 150,000 of Cablevision's 3 million digital cable customers subscribe to the Sports and Entertainment Pack.
Tennis, meanwhile, is also awaiting resolution in its program-carriage complaint against Comcast at the Federal Communications Commission's Enforcement Bureau.
In July, the bureau recommended to Chief Administrative Law Judge Richard Sippel that Tennis has made the case that Comcast had discriminated on the basis of affiliation. Comcast should be hit with the maximum fine allowed, which is $375,000, the bureau also said.

Tennis officials are eyeing the "three Ps" relative to the Comcast program-carriage complaint, meaning it's looking for parity relative to the pricing, penetration and positioning of Golf Channel and Versus, sports networks owned by cable company under its NBCUniversal venture with General Electric.

Tennis said that 2.7 million of Comcast's 23 million subscribers get the service. It was unclear when the FCC's decision would be rendered.