What's the Dish on Cards Blackouts?

Some DirecTV customers in Iowa, Illinois and Kentucky noticed the FSN Midwest Cardinals blackout was lifted on Wednesday. Does that mean a deal is done? Not exactly…

Net-net: If you are a DirecTV user and had been blacked out of Cardinals games previously paid for and received in past seasons, the games should now be back. The answer for Dish Network is unclear. But, in either case, the fundamental dispute has not been closed.

It was a scenario seemingly driven by chance, not design. A number of Cardinals fans in large areas of Illinois, Iowa and Kentucky who happened to be around their televisions for Wednesday afternoon's series finale in Pittsburgh and happened to check their premium sports tier channel for FSN Midwest on DirecTV for the game actually found the game - in a location where there had been only blackouts to date in this young 2007 season.

In those areas, FSN Midwest's telecasts of Cardinals games had been available in past seasons via a premium sports tier on both DirecTV and Dish Network, but have been absent this baseball season. That action has sent scores of angry fans in search of responsible parties to hear and hopefully act upon their most valid concerns.

FSN Midwest wants their signal to move from the premium package to basic service, same as the Cubs and White Sox and the same as on cable. The benefit to them is clear – many more viewers. More viewers mean more revenue. The satellite providers might prefer to continue to collect the fees paid for their premium sports tiers and leave well enough alone.

But, in all fairness, this issue seems to be bigger than FSN Midwest and the Cardinals.

In past stories on this site and elsewhere, this dispute had been painted as a Midwest issue, yet there seem to be a few other local areas around the country in a similar situation. While not confirmed by anyone, I get the distinct impression that these cases are linked.

Closer to home, on Wednesday, the Cardinals game was broadcast to those DirecTV subscribers who pay $12 a month for their sports pack, just as in past seasons. Robert Mercer, director of public relations for DirecTV, made this unofficial (but very official-sounding) announcement to the Bloomington-Normal (Illinois) Pantagraph:

"Those customers who were previously blacked out will now be able to see their Cardinals games. The games are back on."

FSN Midwest's Geoff Goldman also seems optimistic, but was less specific. "We can confirm we are working on a resolution with DirecTV and are still talking with Dish, too," Goldman said late Friday afternoon.

Exactly what does this mean? Well, no one is saying officially, but here is my guess. For DTV to make this non-announcement announcement, the parties would seem to have to be close to a deal. Not known is whether that would relocate FSN Midwest from the premium pack to basic service or keep it where it is.

Wednesday's restoration of the games to the sports tier might be interpreted as an interim good-faith action for DirecTV's paying customers, perhaps the first step visible on the way to a more permanent solution. At least, that is a plausible theory.

Another take could be that FSN and their network peers have backed down, but to me, it seems more likely that the two sides are preparing for a bigger announcement.

Granted, it is possible that negotiations could break down and the games could be taken away for a second time, but these parties are surely smarter than that, aren't they?

What does it mean for Dish Network? I don't know. But, again my gut says that they should be highly motivated to come to terms quickly as DirecTV seems to be doing. Otherwise, they stand a very real risk of losing this segment of their baseball-watching fans to their competitors from DirecTV and cable, both of which would have the Cardinals games they wouldn't.

I want to be crystal clear that there has been no announcement. I am interpreting the news and rumors and am not representing anyone's official position.

Keep watching this space for more information. But, even more important than trying to sort through the rhetoric, the real place to get the answer is from your television. If you're a sports pack subscriber on DirecTV or Dish, see if Friday night's Brewers-Cardinals game is on.

If so, you'll know there is some progress is being made. If not, then you may continue to react like Howard Beale, the crazed newscaster from the movie "Network", who famously told his viewers:

"I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell, ‘I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!'"

Hopefully, all the yelling will be over soon.

Reference: "Sat Providers & FSN Midwest at Odds re: Cards" (April 8)

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

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