Talk about a marriage of the doomed! The United Football League, a new pro football venture, debuted last week on the facing Versus sports network. The result: about 146,000 viewers in the 18-to-49 age demographic. That's about 13 percent lower than the average Versus audience, which is already down at levels nearing Nielsen brain death.
The UFL -- a four-team league that operates in Orlando, Las Vegas, San Francisco and New York -- hitched its wagon to the Versus star at the worst possible moment, just as the tiny cable channel was getting itself kicked off DirecTV's satellite dishes in a rate dispute. That bounced Versus out of 18 million American homes, though the network claims that enhanced availability through the rival Dish Network cut the loss to five million. Bottom line: The Lingerie Football League seems a good bet to outlast both the UFL and Versus.
In a move that's going to be an unpleasant surprise for some sports fans when they realize what's going on, DirecTV has booted the Versus cable network off its satellite dishes in a dispute over money. DirecTV says Versus wanted a 20 percent increase on the 18 cents per subscriber it collects from cable and satellite companies. That may not sound like a lot of money, but when indexed against Versus' ratings, it turns the little channelinto one of the most expensive sports networks in America. Versus, for its part, says DirecTV wanted to put it into a more expensive tier of channels that would have cost it access to millions of viewers. Bottom line: On Sept. 1, DirecTV pulled the plug.
Versus, which used to be called the Outdoor Life Network, airs an immense amount of junk programming, from informercials (as many as 10 hours a day at times) to trash sports like cage fighting. But it's also got the NHL, the Tour de France bike race, and college football games from the Pac-10, Big 12, Mountain West and Ivy League conferences. (In 2007, Versus was the only TV network to air No. 1 USC's loss to 43-point underdog Stanford, the greatest upset in the history of college football.) The tiff between DirecTV and Versus hasn't generated much publicity yet, but as we move into fall and fans tune in for college football or pro hockey only to discover it isn't there, expect some noise.
With the uproar about the Obama administration's decision to ease restrictions on travel to Cuba, another element of the new policy has been overlooked: It authorizes American companies to provide satellite TV radio and telecommunications services on the island. The policy has removes satellite receivers from the list of restricted technology imports. So Dish Network and DirecTV, presumably, can start selling subscriptions in Havana.
Actually, the satellite companies are already doing business there, though they may not know it. Stories of black-market trade in the pizza-sized satellite dishes abound in Havana. A Cuban-American friend recently told me that his brother has used a bootleg DirecTV subscription as the foundation of a thriving Blockbuster-style video rental business: He tapes shows off his satellite dish round-the-clock, then sends his kids door-to-door in the neighborhood, offering them for rental. "The only thing he won't tape is porn," my friend said. "The cops mostly ignore what he does, but they get really ticked off by porn."
The cops aren't the only ones turning a blind eye. My friend the code-busting card that allows his brother to covertly receive the DirecTV's signal was purchased from a government official. Fee: $20 a month. And I bet that when his brother needs customer service, he doesn't get routed to a telephone operator in India, either.
The Dillon Panthers are still undefeated. NBC and DirecTV have extended their joint financing venture on Friday Night Lights for another two seasons, by which time all the original characters will have graduated from their West Texas high school and probably have their colleges on probation for recruiting violations. Each season will be 13 episodes and will air first on DirecTV, as the show did last year.
The satellite-TV company Dish Network is once again playing hardball with a media company, and Univision could disappear from Dish's dishes later this week. After six months of trench warfare, negotiations on a new contract between the two have ground to a halt, and Univision is running TV ads threatening to pull its 64 local channels from Dish on Thursday, April 2. (The contract actually expires on March 31, but the trade journal Multichannel News reports that Univision won't pull the plug until after the quarterly Nielsen sweeps end on Wednesday.)
In the past, Univision has not only not charged Dish for its programming but has invoked a federal law that says the satellite company mustcarry local channels that request it. Now, though, Univision is asking for money -- as much as $1 per viewer, by some reports. Dish, which has a long history of squabbling telling other media companies to blow it out their piehole over money, is resisting. Usually, in the end, everybody cools off, the greatest example being the epic 2007 dispute with Court TV (now truTV). That will almost certainly be the case this time, since Dish's competitor DirecTV already has a deal with Univision. But it's always fun to imagine a Big Media train wreck, so keep your fingers crossed.
The U.S. Senate Monday approved legislation that would delay the switchover from analog to digital television for four months. The bill changes the transition date from Feb. 17 to June 12. But the change won't be official until the House approves it too; that could happen as early as Tuesday. The Obama administration asked for the change because, depending on which figures you accept, somewhere between 8 and 10 percent of American households are unprepared for the switchover. Because most of those households watch little or no television (anybody with cable or satellite service is already prepared for digital signals), that figure is not going to decline much between now and June. It will be interesting to see if Obama and Congress blink again as the new date approaches.
Wonderland, a noble but doomed attempt by ABC to set a drama inside a mental hospital, lasted just two episodes in 2000 before ratings and political-correctness complaints sent it into a television black hole, never to be seen again --until now. Satellite television service DirecTV has acquired all eight episodes of Wonderland and is airing them as a weekly mini-series starting Wednesday night on its channel 101. Each episode will include introductory commentary from the show's creator, Peter Berg, who raged at the time that Wonderland was a victim of political correctness (''the behavior of ABC in regards to Wonderland is completely irrational'') but ultimately returned to television to make Friday Night Lights.
Even nine years later, Wonderland may still be ahead of its time. Though its writing and cast are every bit as brilliant as critics said in 2000, Wonderland is also relentlessly bleak and pockmarked with shockingly sudden violence, inflicting on viewers the television version of a gang beatdown. Read my full review in Wednesday's Miami Herald.
The Ascent of Money (9 p.m. Tuesday, WPBT-PBS 2) -- Now that every business in America with a net worth of 50 cents or more is demanding a government bailout and the incoming Obama administration is about to uncork a cool
$1 trillion in taxpayer money to humor them, this is a good time to reflect on how we got into this economic meltdown. This provocative documentary from Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, whose flashy style does not negate his keen intellect, weaves the banking crisis and the real-estate bubble into a broader tapestry on the history of money that refutes the old joke: "If you laid all the economists in the world end-to-end,
they still wouldn't reach a conclusion."
Wonderland (10 p.m. Wednesday, DirecTV channel 101) -- This dark drama set in a mental asylum was so disturbing that ABC canceled it after just two weeks in 2000. If you've got a DirecTV satellite dish, now you can watch all eight episodes and see what the fuss was about.
The Beast (10 p.m. Thursday, A&E) -- Patrick Swayze stars as an undercover FBI agent who may have gone rogue and Travis Fimmel as his rookie partner, secretly tasked by the bureau with finding out in this new cop series.
Friday Night Lights (9 p.m. Friday, NBC) -- OK, we did an item for people who have DirecTV service. Now here's one for people who don't: The third season of this high-school-football soap, which has been airing exclusively on DirecTV since October, is finally coming to broadcast television. If you've been dying to see that dreamy new quarterback and his tight . . . spirals . . . here's your chance.
The Dish Network has added an all-telenovela channel to its satellite lineup: Pasiones. It airs novelas from all over Latin America, including Puerto de los Milagros, Tormenta de Pasiones and Metamorfosis. Pasiones is part of a programming package aimed specifically at Mexican immigrants in the United States called DishMexico. It includes 50 Spanish-language channels and sells for $20 a month, though Dish offers subscribers an introductory deal of $10 a month for the first six. Just last month, Dish's rival DirecTV made its own pitch at new Spanish-language subscribers by adding Telecentro, a channel of news programs and soccer from Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Costa Rica. Look for more Spanish-language options soon: With Spanish-speaking television households increasing 4.4 percent a year, it's a growth market.