Entertainment, Hockey, and “Market Power”: Comcast and Echostar

Lynne Kiesling

I am a hockey fan, and have been since childhood. Because I am from Pittsburgh, it is unimaginable that I would support any team other than the Pittsburgh Penguins, even though I have now lived in Chicago for longer than I lived in Pittsburgh. So I was excited to see that OLN had several Penguins games listed in their TV schedule for the season.

October 10 arrives, Pittsburgh v. Buffalo. I turn on OLN. It’s ice fishing. I rub my eyes and look at the digital schedule. Yep, it’s supposed to be hockey. I look at the OLN website. Yep, it’s supposed to be hockey. I send off an appropriately worded complaint to OLN.

Turns out, I and other hockey fans who subscribe to Dish Network are pawns in a slugfest between Comcast, which owns OLN, and EchoStar, which owns Dish:

EchoStar dumped OLN after the latter, without warning, dropped its NHL coverage for a bass-o-rama show. The crux of the argument: Placement in Dish’s lineup of OLN, devoted mainly to fishing and hunting programming.

OLN is in Dish’s package of 180 channels but wants to be included in the 120-channel package. It’s about money. OLN paid $135 million – not dime-store numbers but not a king’s ransom in the world of sports – to carry the NHL and is using the games to negotiate a more favorable, and possibly more lucrative, spot with Dish.

The latter isn’t biting, calling OLN (and Comcast’s) move an attempt to “bully” Dish’s subscribers into paying more for outdoor programming because, Dish maintains, it would have to charge subscribers more to provide OLN in the 120-channel package.

OLN blocked transmission to Dish customers 10-13 October, and EchoStart subsequently decided to drop OLN from their offerings. Here’s a CNN/SI article on the situation.

I am pretty hacked off about the whole thing; the two reasons we upgraded to the 180 package were 1. Fox Soccer and 2. hockey+Tour on OLN. So I think it’s true that Comcast is trying to bully Dish. But I would also prefer to have OLN included in the 120 (although at the margin my preference is irrelevant, because I’m WTP more to get Fox Soccer, and that’s not going to be in the 120 any time soon).

Both parties are creating lots of bad karma and negative goodwill and reputation capital, as far as I can tell. Honestly, I think if OLN wants to be in the better bundle, it’s going to have to offer less fishing and Survivor and more sports programming. Hockey + Tour de France is a start, but until they get more sports, they will be considered a part of an outdoor package, and thus relegated to the 180.

It’s been three weeks, and no resolution. How stupidly stubborn can either/both be? As stupidly stubborn as, say, the NHL owners and player’s union? Hmmmm … I don’t care which package it’s in, because obviously I’m willing to buy the bigger package for just two channels (although I have to admit that getting the style channel has been an unexpected bonus!), so once they resolve it I get it again. But resolve it already! Yes, they are fighting over big bucks, but think of the losses they are creating by having this drag on for almost a month.

And why is the NHL not weighing in on this? And the Tour? Because ya gotta know that EchoStar will argue that no one is going to watch the Tour now that Lance is retired (I think they’re not entirely correct, but that’s another story). The NHL should care, because I am not following hockey as closely as if I could watch it, and I’m probably pretty representative. Are there sufficiently few Dish subscribers that the NHL doesn’t think they are worth fighting for?

The Pens play the Rangers tonight on OLN. Maybe after my yoga class I’ll go over to my friends who have DirectTV …

3 thoughts on “Entertainment, Hockey, and “Market Power”: Comcast and Echostar

  1. Style dude? Style?


    Anyway, this lack of action on the part of the NHL is nothing new for the major sports leagues. I lost the beginning of this past Mets season when no one seemed to care that Time Warner was fighting with Cablevision (who owns MSG & the rights to air the Mets on cable). The issue was finally resolved, but not before a few weeks of games were radio-only.

    This was NYC, where there are a lot more Mets fans than there are Hockey fans in Pittsburgh (no disrespect intended). One of the biggest franchises in all of sports was blacked out to more than a million viewers, but the league did nothing.

    I would call it an isolated incident except that the Yankees had the same problem with Cablevision one year earlier, when the cable giant refused to include YES with their packages.

    I think the real issue at hand is that the leagues are pawns to television’s whims. the NHL is already on shakey ground and doesn’t want to rock the boat; MLB gets a lot of money from the cable companies and is too greedy to give some of it back for the sake of the fans. In the end, it’s those fans who lose out.

  2. The television distribution channels for live sports “product” enjoy near-monopoly power.With only the “next” contract cycle on their planning radar, and the knowledge that subscribers have few alternatives, TV fiefdoms imperiously assume the fans will always be there.Over time, it’s safe to assume sports’ mindshare will erode given the comic indifference with which fans (customers) are treated, and the still flowering explosion of digital entertainment choices.But television’s decision makers will likely remain stuck on short-termism until it is too late. The ongoing imbecility of scheduling world series games so that future fans (children) can’t ever watch them on the East Coast, is the symbol of all this.

  3. Lynne,

    Two pieces of advice that both start with “do like me”:

    1. Get digital cable and subscribe to NHL Center Ice

    2. Root for the Red Wings.

    Your life will improve immensely.

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