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Time Warner Cable subscribers miss "Linsanity"

By Liana B. Baker

(Reuters) - The biggest story in basketball is happening in New York City but about two million residents may be missing it due to a broadcast dispute, which could result in sports fans dumping Time Warner Cable Inc subscriptions.

Jeremy Lin's winning streak on the New York Knicks has galvanized the struggling basketball team, but also shone the spotlight on an ill-timed dispute between Time Warner Cable Inc and MSG Network, a regional sports channel owned by the Madison Square Garden Co that carries most of Lin's games.

Their broadcast carriage agreement expired on December 31 and the two sides have not been able to strike a new deal, which means Time Warner Cable subscribers in the New York area are unable to watch Lin's sudden rise to fame.

And the dispute could last until April, the end of the National Basketball Association's regular season, MSG Media President Michael Bair said last week.

Time Warner says subscriber cancellations have so far been insignificant, but New Yorkers affected by the dispute are not happy and threatening to switch cable providers.

Milan Mesarich, a musician and Knicks fan, said he would have switched from Time Warner Cable to competitor DirecTV if it was available in his building in Astoria, Queens.

"If I was living in a house, by February, I would have already contacted DirecTV and left," Mesarich, 48, said.

As it is, Mesarich, who has been following the team for 20 years, has a new pre-game ritual -- figuring out which local bars will carry the game.

"With everyone jumping aboard with Jeremy Lin, there is more interest now in the team but at least I have a pretty good handle on which bars don't have Time Warner," he said.

ADVERTISING DOLLAR AT STAKE

Knicks buzz spurred by Lin, dubbed "Linsanity," drove MSG shares up 3.76 percent to end at $32.32 on Monday.

"All we've asked of Time Warner Cable is to recognize the fair market value of the services that we provide," Bair said on Monday.

MSG is controlled by the Dolan family, who also own the Knicks, the New York Rangers hockey team, and Cablevision Systems Corp, a rival of Time Warner Cable.

Time Warner is also not giving up any ground.

"Unfortunately, MSG is still demanding a 53 percent (fee)increase; our hope is that they will go back to their pre-December demands and close a reasonable deal," said Maureen Huff, a spokeswoman for Time Warner Cable.

She added that at least four Knicks games in February will be available on other channels that Time Warner Cable carries, such as ESPN, ABC and TNT.

The cost of sports programming is on the rise globally as it is one of the few kinds of live programming still viewed by enough people to attract top advertising dollars. Other TV shows, such as dramas and comedies, are often taped and watched later, when viewers often fast-forward through commercials.

TV ratings have jumped since Lin was entered into the starting lineup on Feb 6, according to MSG.

The Knicks' win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Saturday was the highest rated Knicks game on MSG since Carmelo Anthony's first game as a team member last February.

Time Warner Cable's dispute with MSG could spur subscribers to switch to Verizon Communications Inc's competing FiOS TV service, according to Brean Murray analyst Todd Mitchell.

FiOS is not yet available in all neighborhoods or apartment buildings in New York, and the service would be smart to step up its marketing efforts during the dispute, Mitchell said.

"It's a real competitive issue for Time Warner Cable. It's been a churn decision driving factor to go to FiOS," he said.

(Reporting By Liana B. Baker, Editing by Tiffany Wu and Michael Perry)

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