Fans of swimming, rugby, skiing and volleyball got a rude awakening in the new year when Universal Sports, a channel that focuses on sports that are staples of the summer and winter Olympic Games, vanished from cable systems around the country.
Launched in 2005 as World Championship Sports Network and then rebranded Universal Sports in 2008, the channel has not gone under but rather has changed its distribution strategy and is basically starting from scratch.
Prior to Jan. 1, Universal Sports, which is majority owned by InterMedia Partners — with Comcast's NBCUniversal holding a small stake — was offered to distributors such as Time Warner Cable for free. The channel was not technically a cable channel but instead was a digital broadcast channel. Locally, KNBC-TV provides some of its channel capacity to Universal Sports for distribution purposes.
Now, Universal Sports wants to be paid by distributors for carriage and is being offered as a stand-alone cable network. So far, satellite broadcaster DirecTV is the only multichannel video program distributor to have cut a deal with the channel, but its officers say they are confident that they'll be in 15 million to 20 million homes by the end of 2012. Previously, the channel was available in about 40 million homes.
Unlike many sports channels, Universal Sports is not asking distributors to carry the network on their most popular programming package, typically known as expanded basic or digital. Instead, it is seeking to be part of specialty packages that consumers pay extra to receive if they want the channel.
"We're not looking at this as a network that has to be carried everywhere or not at all," said Universal Sports Chief Executive David Sternberg.
There has been a lot of tension over the last few years between sports networks and distributors about rising programming costs. In New York, the sports channel MSG pulled itself off the local Time Warner Cable systems because the two could not reach an agreement on a new contract.
"We see ourselves as part of the solution," Sternberg said of the company's decision to offer itself as a specialty channel. Of course, given the limited appeal of the sports it carries, the channel would probably have a tough sell making the case to distributors that it needs to be on the most-subscribed to package of channels.
— Joe Flint
Photo: Austria's Manfred Pranger at World Cup slalom last month. Credit: Associated Press.