Let the games end

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If you thought sports was all about pissing matches, take a look at sports broadcasting.

Time Warner Cable and the Sunshine Network have been feuding for weeks over the terms of a new contract, and now it's the viewers who are paying the price.

The Sunshine Network's 10-year contract with TWC expired at midnight on New Year's Eve, and neither side has budged since. TWC appears unwilling to pay the 60-percent rate increase that the Sunshine Network wants. The hike would bring the cost of Sunshine to $1.44 per customer per month, or an extra 54 cents. Sunshine carries Miami Heat and Orlando Magic games, as well as other professional and collegiate teams from all over the state. The network has grown consistently over the years and now offers the widest range of Florida sports on TWC. Without the station, Magic fans will miss most of the season's remaining home games.

Unless a deal is reached, TWC customers (about 700,000 in Central Florida) will continue to receive ESPNEWS as a replacement, and a 90-cent discount on their bills.

Both sides are playing games. TWC has offered a temporary 10-percent increase to Sunshine Network during renegotiations, but Sunshine turned it down. They want that huge increase plus guaranteed hikes of at least 10 percent each subsequent year. TWC offered to make Sunshine a premium channel, but the network is apparently afraid of letting customers vote with their wallets.

Ball games are an important part of television, and outlets like Sunshine Network are exactly where sports should be. For years, fans have relied on dedicated sports channels for full games and the in-depth analysis they crave. ESPN and Fox Sports (and their spin offs) offer 24-hour coverage, while a growing number of networks offer specialized programming, like The Golf Channel, Speed Channel, and The Outdoor Network.

Which is why sports coverage on local TV news has outlasted its relevance. With hundreds of websites and newspapers devoted to sports, how can it still merit 10 percent of a newscast? Like Lotto numbers or the prime-time TV schedule, stats and scores should be neatly summed up with a few bullet points and presented as bumpers before and after commercials.

Now it appears that -- and I never thought I'd say this ÐWOFL-TV Channel 35 may be leading a refreshing revolution in local news. Rumor has it they are dumping the regular sports component of their morning and 10 p.m. programs.

General manager Stan Knott arrived at WOFL right after the station was purchased by News Corp. (the same parent company as Sunshine Network) in mid-June of last year. Since then, his goal has been to make Channel 35's news "fundamentally better," which could include dropping the daily sports-highlight reels. Knott isn't happy that speculation of the change has leaked out, and tells me that no formal decisions have been made.

"We've done nothing official regarding that," he says. "We'll take a hard look at everything and make some decisions."

Knott emphasizes that sports won't be eliminated completely. Instead the idea is to look at how they handle sports on days when there are no big, local games. He says that WOFL will produce three Daytona 500 specials in February and plans to continue "the daily hits, runs and errors."

Sports is big business, and it's important to a lot of people, but it no longer needs a place in the jam-packed half-hour of local news. The national newscasts don't include sports, unless it's an event that has larger significance in the outside world, like the Super Bowl or the Olympics. Local-news directors should follow their lead and use what I call the "Wheel of Fortune" criterion when determining newsworthiness. You wouldn't show clips of tonight's game- show winners, so why include film of the Seattle-Boston game? Likewise, a sports story only deserves inclusion if it becomes actual news. (Incidentally, this is "NFL Players Week" on "Wheel.")

Games are fun to watch -- in their entirety -- but scores merely represent the drama; they're meaningless without context. That's why the current Sunshine Network/Time Warner Cable dispute is so sad. Just when WOFL is wisely cutting back sports news, another channel that should have sports is in danger of disappearing from Central Florida TV.

If the standoff continues, subscribers may ultimately decide who's wrong. When a big game is blacked-out, I doubt that anyone will call Sunshine Network to complain. Instead, Time Warner's phones will be ringing. For once it's the viewers who can cry foul.

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