Suddenlink, CSN Houston Disagree over Freeview Terms

Carriage controversy continues in Houston where Suddenlink has accepted Comcast SportsNet Houston’s freeview offer -- for its subs in the DMA.  But the regional sports network says its free trial offer is not governed by such terms.

The cable operator on Friday said it wants to make the RSN’s free preview offer --which started on April 25 and extends through the end of May -- available to its subscribers in the Houston area, but not in other parts of CSN Houston’s TV territory. Suddenlink owns systems in parts of Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas and New Mexico, the states comprising the RSN’s footprint. 

“They’re trying to carve out a piece of our offer and put it in their terms,” a network official said. “That’s not how it works.”

On Thursday, the RSN, a joint venture of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, MLB’s Houston Astros and Comcast’s NBC Sports Group, in a move to jump-start carriage discussions, said it would make its high-definition feed available free of charge to providers within its aforementioned TV territory. That would enable subscribers to watch the network in the high-definition format for a 37-day span, during which CSN Houston will showcase Rockets playoff action versus the Oklahoma City Thunder; Astros games in its rookie season in the American League versus the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Lone Star State rival Texas Rangers; and key matches from Major League Soccer's 2012 runner-up, the Houston Dynamo. News and original series around the clubs, among other programming, will also be available.

According to the RSN, the terms of the offer, though, require Suddenlink or any other regional provider to carry CSN Houston across the five-state TV territory— not on select systems like the cable operator has expressed interest in doing in Houston.

CSN Houston has essentially been locked in distribution limbo -- it has yet to ink pacts with Suddenlink, DirecTV, Dish and AT&T U-verse -- since the service launched last October. The RSN has carriage on Comcast in parts of Louisiana and Little Rock, Arkansas, as well as Houston, and  deals with small providers, Coastal Link, Consolidated Communications, EnTouch, Phonoscope and Telecom Cable. All told, CSN Houston has about 40% coverage in Houston, the nation’s 10th largest DMA with 2.2 million TV homes.

On April 25,  Mid-Coast Cablevision, Texas Mid-Gulf Cablevision and Bay City Cablevision agreed to offer the RSN during its freeview period through May 31.

Also on Thursday, AT&T U-verse said the freeview doesn't address its wont to offer the RSN on an a la carte basis:  "As we've said before, we'd like to make the channel available to our customers on an a la carte basis, so the proposed cost is not unfairly passed to all of our customers across Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas. In fact, we're happy to offer the free preview if we can reach a fair deal so that customers can continue to watch the channel on an a la carte basis immediately after the preview. The truth is, if CSN Houston felt strongly about their fans seeing these games, they could stream CSN Houston online during the free preview or offer us the option to make the channel available on an a la carte basis for fans who want to watch. But unfortunately, CSN Houston isn't offering either of those options."

The MLB Extra Innings package allows for streaming of out-of-market games. However, in order for viewers to watch streamed games of a club within its home market, providers and regional sports networks have to first reach a contractual agreement for linear carriage within that territory, and then an adjunct accord to make the contests accessible to authenticated subscribers within the regional/local area.

Suddenlink responded to CSN Houston's freeview offer on Friday afternoon, noting that "we’ve informed CSN Houston that free is the right price for putting their network on our expanded basic level of service, and we will accept that price for our Houston-area customers as long as CSN wants to make it available. We look forward to providing CSN to our Houston-area customers.”

In its statement Friday, Suddenlink also said in order for it to carry the freeview it needed to obtain “blackout waivers" for Rockets action extending past the first round of the playoffs.

The second through fourth rounds of the NBA postseason, though, are only available through those national cable outlets and broadcaster, ABC.

Matt Hutchings, CSN Houston’s president and general manager issued this statement on Friday evening: “AT&T’s suggestion that CSN Houston should stream our coverage of Astros games and Suddenlink’s concerns about our ability to black out second- and third-round NBA playoff games on ESPN and TNT clearly demonstrates an unfortunate lack of knowledge surrounding sports rights, and once again their customers are stuck waiting as these important games unfold."

Earlier this month, CSN and Suddenlink engaged in a public negotiating spat. Hutchings wrote a letter on April 17 that was posted on the IwantCSNHouston area on the RSN's website, stating that he was “pleased” that the operator accepted the RSN's license fee price. However, Hutchings went on to say CSN Houston wants expanded-basic placement, the same positioning the operator affords FS Southwest in Houston and to other RSNs around the nation.

In a letter of her own two days later, Suddenlink senior vice president and chief programming officer Patty McCaskill responded by saying that in “our last offer, we agreed upon a price relevant to carriage on a digital sports tier.” McCaskill wrote that if CSN Houston were seeking expanded basic coverage, then “the price will be needed to be adjusted accordingly.”

Moreover, McCaskill said that Suddenlink considers CSN Houston, with its focus on professional sports teams in that market, to be a local sports network, versus a service like FS Southwest, which covers different pro and college teams "across a multiple state geography."

Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who has called the carriage situation "intolerable" for Houston sports fans and taxpayers, who have helped fund the venues where the pro clubs play, has called for meetings with the major providers. DirecTV, AT&T and Suddenlink have accepted the mayoral invite, but the meeting dates have yet to be set.

Presumably, the freeview offer -- and its terms -- will be a point of those discussions.