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OLN Still Filling NHL Roster

Three games into its first season of National Hockey League coverage, OLN is still juggling its distribution lines.

Subscribers to Cablevision Systems Corp. and EchoStar Communications Corp.’s Dish Network missed a pair of OLN-televised NHL contests last week and will continue to fan on the Comcast Corp.-owned service’s puck coverage, unless the parties reach a resolution over penetration issues.

OLN, in its first shift with the sport under a two-year, $135 million rights deal, made the season-opening New York Rangers-Philadelphia Flyers game on Oct. 5 available to all of its 64 million subscribers. Last week, though, OLN pulled the feed from Cablevision and Dish for the Oct. 10 match between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres, and the Phoenix Coyotes-Dallas Stars contest the following night because those carriers were not making the network available to 40% of their customer base.

Replacement programming was sent to both distributors, who weren’t happy with the hockey holes in OLN’s lineup.

“We are disappointed that Comcast, the largest cable-TV company in the nation, has failed to fulfill its contractual obligations with Dish Network,” said Dish in a statement. “We hope we can resolve this issue, but we will not allow our customers to be bullied.”

“We are assessing our options in light of this destructive and anti-consumer action by OLN and Comcast, and will keep our customers informed,” Cablevision responded.

A spokeswoman for OLN, which reached an accord with Adelphia Communications Corp. before last Monday’s game, said the network is still engaged in “active discussions” with Cablevision and Dish.

Dish positions OLN on its “America’s Top 180” offering, while Cablevision carries OLN on a $4.95-per-month sports tier and counts less than 25,000 customers. The MSO ran ads for its iO Sports Pak in New York metro-area newspapers last Monday.

“Cablevision is trying to limit hockey games to 22,000 customers and denying more than 99% of its customers access to these games; we’re fighting to bring the games to 3 million New York fans,” OLN said in a statement.

The additional distribution could presumably bolster OLN’s ratings performance. After notching a 0.4 household average with the opener, the subsequent games produced a 0.3 and a 0.2, respectively. The 0.3 average represents a boost over OLN’s typical weeknight performance. That number ranks below ESPN’s 0.5 average with the 2003-04 season, but above ESPN2’s 0.2.

At the regional level, Fox Sports Net reported that its early-season coverage of a dozen NHL teams grew 50% to a 1.8 average in the respective DMAs, versus the same time period in the 2003-04 campaign, with five of the regionals registering gains that doubled their season-earlier numbers.

The 2004-05 NHL season was cancelled over a labor dispute.