TV Answer Man, I read your articles about Bally Sports not being on some TV lineups, but what about the Comcast and MSG blackout? Do you have a take on that? — Carl, Rio Grande, New Jersey. 

Carl, Comcast on October 1 lost both MSG and MSG+ due to a carriage dispute with their owner, MSG Networks. The blackout means that Comcast residents in New Jersey and Connecticut can not watch MSG’s broadcasts of New York Knicks, New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers and New York Islanders games.

When the blackout began, Comcast downplayed the missing channels, saying that “95 percent of all customers who received MSG over the past year did not watch more than 10 of the approximately 240 games it broadcast. We don’t believe that our customers should have to pay the millions of dollars in fees that MSG is demanding for some of the most expensive sports content in the country with extremely low viewership in our markets.”

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MSG countered that their networks are must-see viewing for loyal sports fans while noting that it just signed a new carriage agreement with Verizon. The message was that if our channels are so rarely viewed, why was Verizon willing to pay for them?

We don’t know if Comcast’s numbers are accurate because they have not been verified by a third party. But the cable operator’s stance is indicative of how pay TV operators today view regional sports networks. While RSNs (Regional Sports Networks) are popular with some, their viewership is low compared to basic cable channels such as Discovery and ESPN. Cable and satellite operators are balking at paying premium prices, which the RSNs charge to offset fees paid for game rights, for channels that are not watched by a large portion of the audience.

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By example, Comcast has not carried the Disney-owned ACC Network since it launched in August 2019. The cable operator also did not carry the Yes Network, the TV home of the New York Yankees, for 16 months until returning it to its lineup in 2017.

And it’s not just Comcast. Satcaster Dish carries just a few RSNs now and live streamers such as YouTube TV and Hulu Live have not offered the Bally Sports regional sports channels for a year or more.

What this means for the Comcast-MSG fee fight is that it’s likely to last for months, if not longer than that. Pay TV services are prepared now to do without certain niche channels to keep costs down. And in their view, RSNs are just niche channels with small audiences.

Carl, hope that makes sense. Happy viewing, and stay safe!

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— Phillip Swann