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Cable rules affect Paragon talks

Paragon Cable's decision not to televise the Tampa Bay Lightning's opener on Sunshine Network may be influenced by cable-television regulations approved Monday by Congress in overriding President Bush's veto.

New federal regulations probably won't decrease cable fees, but they may prevent rates from rising at their current pace. Supporters of the bill believe consumers will be charged less because of increased competition and the FCC setting standards on "reasonable rates" for basic cable. Bush and the cable industry believe regulations will force cable operators to charge more.

Negotiations between Paragon Cable and Sunshine Network have lasted three months. Recently, Time Warner Cable/ATC, which owns Paragon Cable, became involved in contract talks.

"I don't believe that because (Time Warner) is involved in negotiations that it's become less of a personal decision," said Tony Marino, Paragon's vice president of marketing. "We have conveyed to them the importance of the Lightning in this community."

Sunshine Network is asking Paragon Cable, along with the other cable operators, to pay a surcharge to televise hockey games. In some cases, a cable operator may be charged 40 or 50 cents per subscriber. Paragon Cable is the largest cable operator in Tampa Bay, with more than 300,000 subscribers.

"A veto would have taken some of the uncertainty out of the negotiations, and maybe Time Warner would have been more amenable to the surcharge. They would have had more control," said John Mansell, senior sports analyst for Paul Hagan Associates, a California media-consulting firm.

"I'm speculating here, but with the combination of surcharges and regulatory uncertainty, Time Warner may want to wait and see what rules the FCC establishes to implement the legislation."

Jeff McQuinn, president of the Tampa Bay division of Paragon Cable, said he expects negotiations to be concluded in time for the Lightning's next game on Sunshine Network (Oct. 30 against San Jose). In the meantime, area viewers can get their first look at the Lightning on television Saturday night against the Minnesota North Stars on WTOG-Ch. 44 (8:05 p.m.).

ESPN ratings in your face: After five weeks, NFL GameDay ratings have increased 14 percent from last year (2.8 to 3.2), and NFL Primetime ratings are up 17 percent from a year ago (3.5 to 4.1).

Interestingly, ESPN's highest-rated quarter-hour on NFL GameDay is 12:30-12:45, when the network is in direct competition with CBS (NFL Today) and NBC (NFL Live). ESPN has a 3.4 rating during the 15-minute time slot.

After five weeks, the NFL Today has received a 4.9 rating, equaling last year's rating. NFL Live has a 3.7 rating this year, up from last year's 3.5 rating.

"I think our show compares very favorably with the networks," said Loren Matthews, ESPN's senior vice president of programming. "That's not to say they don't do a fine job, but I don't think we have to take a back seat when it comes to that kind of product."

ESPN is available in about 66 percent of all television households (61.4-million).

ESPN's hockey ratings also are on the upswing. Tuesday's NHL opener between the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers received a 1.5 rating. When ESPN last held NHL TV rights from 1985 to 1988, the network averaged a 0.9 rating.

Local beat: People are listening to sports-talk radio on WFNS-910 AM. That includes the people who are being talked about. Wednesday morning, fullback Alonzo Highsmith called hosts Scot Brantley and Steve Deumig to say goodbye because he had just been cut by the Buccaneers. Highsmith's release has been a hot topic with listeners _ most of them in support of Highsmith.