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Kudos went to the National Hockey League in August when it cut a three-year television deal with the Outdoor Life Network worth $200-million (U.S.).

Although OLN's U.S. distribution of 65 million homes fell well short of ESPN's 90-plus million, OLN had growth potential and planned to give the NHL star treatment. The NHL hadn't planned on a starring role as a villain.

The deal turned sour when OLN, owned by Comcast, became embroiled in a distribution fight with Cablevision in the New York market and with the satellite service EchoStar across the United States.

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OLN demanded to be moved from a sports tier, where it was placed on some cable services, to a more widely distributed basic tier (where OLN would receive a larger cable fee). When Cablevision and EchoStar refused the demand, OLN countered by blacking out its hockey telecasts.

The big hit came last week when EchoStar, denouncing Comcast's "strong-arm tactics," made the extreme move of expelling OLN from its channel menu.

This, of course, has been a public-relations disaster for the NHL, which is trying to get its revamped game watched, but instead has seen it denied to established fans as well as new viewers.

Did the league see this coming?

"We were certainly aware of the carriage issue with Cablevision," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said yesterday.

Not surprising, the NHL is in a conflict. In addition to enjoying a relationship with Comcast, which owns the Philadelphia Flyers as well as OLN, the league is in business with EchoStar, which distributes the NHL Centre Ice pay package.

Daly said the league, for obvious reasons, would like OLN's distribution expanded to a basic tier. Just as obvious, OLN's decision to black out the hockey telecasts on Cablevision and EchoStar is a disaster for the NHL.

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TV consultant Neal Pilson, a former president of CBS Sports, is a hockey fan, lives in New York and subscribes to Cablevision.

"EchoStar happens to be a client," he said. "So I'm being very careful here about how I'm describing the situation. The important point is these issues come up every once in a while and they get resolved. They're growing pains [for OLN]"

An NHL source said a resolution could be close.

"The league is working behind the scenes," the source said. "A deal could be a day away or a week away. If it's a month, then I think you will see the league take a more aggressive position."

Of the two distributors, EchoStar is more important to the league than Cablevision, even though the New York distributor has received most of the media attention. EchoStar is in 11.4 million homes, compared with Cablevision's three million.

To resolve the disputes, tradeoffs involving channels and cable placements are made between content providers and distributors. Comcast has plenty of chips to play. It owns several cable channels, including The Golf Channel and E! Entertainment TV.

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Satellite talk

Standard Broadcasting and The Score Television Network announced a partnership yesterday to produce the first all-sport satellite radio channel.

The channel, which will broadcast 24 hours a day, will be called The Score and will be carried on Sirius Canada, the satellite radio service scheduled to be launched in December. The Score will provide the on-air personnel.

John Levy, the chairman and principal owner of The Score, would not discuss his company's financial arrangement with Standard or Sirius. (The CBC, as well as Standard, has a 40-per-cent stake in Sirius Canada.) But Levy is understandably enthusiastic about the cross-promotional opportunities for The Score.

"We're going to be using our talent and creating obviously some new, exciting, innovative programming that is particularly geared for satellite radio," he said. "It's a great extension of what we've been doing for a living."

Turin prospects

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TSN's MasterCard Skate Canada coverage will continue today with the women's short and the pairs' free programs at 7 p.m. EDT. Analyst Debbi Wilkes was asked how the Canadian team will do at the 2006 Turin Olympics.

"Jeffrey Buttle won a silver medal at the world championships, but he could be a threat for something of a different colour at Turin," she said. "He's an enormous talent, the total package."

Leafs TV returned viewers to Toronto from Boston during intermissions of last night's Leafs-Bruins telecast. During the intermissions, the art of the shootout was demonstrated live on the Air Canada Centre ice surface. "Instead of the standard panel format, we're trying to do something special during the telecasts," said John Shannon, the head of Leafs TV.

TSN's Pierre McGuire has agreed to cut back on his radio work. "I think the guys [at TSN]were worried about fatigue," he said. "They've been unbelievably great with me." In addition to TSN, McGuire works for OLN, NBC and Sports Illustrated. He will still do radio spots in Toronto and some in Montreal, Ottawa and Vancouver.

Raptors NBA TV will launch a high-definition channel on Bell ExpressVu on Nov. 1. HDTV content will include NBA and National Collegiate Athletic Association games.

Rogers Sportsnet drew 681,000 viewers for the fourth game 4 of the World Series. Over four games, Sportsnet's average was 569,000, down 23 per cent from last year, when the Boston Red Sox pulled in unusually large numbers.

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The Score announced yesterday a mobile telephone score update service on Bell Mobility and Rogers Wireless.

whouston@globeandmail.ca

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