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Battle lines still drawn in Versus vs. DirecTV

Versus network, which airs NHL games and other sports, remains unavailable to millions of satellite provider DirecTV's subscribers because of an ongoing contract dispute.

September 30, 2009|Diane Pucin

Versus plans to televise an NHL doubleheader Thursday. First up is Washington, with reigning player of the year Alexander Ovechkin, against Boston at 4 p.m. PDT. Next is San Jose and Colorado at 7, featuring a retirement ceremony for Colorado's Joe Sakic.

But an estimated 18 million DirecTV subscribers won't be able to watch unless the contract dispute that caused the satellite provider to pull Versus off its menu Sept. 1 is resolved. Besides the NHL, the network televises college football, Indy Racing League auto racing, cycling and bull riding.

DirecTV spokesman Robert Mercer said negotiations are ongoing. "We're open to putting the games up for our customers while we continue to negotiate," he said. "The puck is at their end of the rink."

Jamie Davis, president of Versus, said that isn't the case.

"They're the ones who pulled our signal off the air on Sept. 1," Davis said. "We were having fruitful negotiations. They were the ones who put up a slate background and insulted our programming and clouded the issues by saying it's all about price.

"We are still negotiating but they are still unwilling to budge off of insisting on re-tiering our network and taking it away from 6 million subscribers."

Three sources with knowledge of the negotiations, who are unable to speak for attribution because of the sensitive nature of the talks, said that Comcast, which owns Versus, wants to increase the cost per subscriber from about 21 cents to about 26 cents.

Davis said this dispute isn't mainly about money, though.

"DirecTV wants to put us on a tier that reaches fewer subscribers," Davis said.

Mercer said cost is an issue.

"A lot of fans understand why we're doing it. We want to hold down programming costs. Also, understand that Versus is owned by Comcast, our largest competitor."

Since Sept. 1, DirecTV subscribers have missed a couple of college football upsets, Sept. 19 when Florida State beat Brigham Young, and last week when Arizona won at Oregon State.

Duane Lindberg, the Pacific 10 associate commissioner for electronic services, said he understood that a large number of DirecTV customers in Arizona were unhappy. The conference is in the third year of a five-year deal with Versus.

"We are getting feedback, no question," he said. "From our standpoint we want as much distribution as possible."

On the NHL website is an open letter: "As a DirecTV subscriber we encourage you to tell DirecTV that you want Versus back so that you don't miss any NHL games this season."

During a Washington Capitals team event last weekend, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said to those in attendance, "Call DirecTV and tell them you're not happy."

Davis said that as long as DirecTV continues to be "un-budged from their position," there may be no quick fix.

"I'm afraid it could be some time," Davis said.

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diane.pucin@latimes.com

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