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April 5, 1984

No one saw Sox on TV

Note: This article first appeared in the Boston Globe on April 5, 1984.

Since television’s inception, the ultimate nightmare of programmers has been that a show will go on the air and no one will be watching. That truly happened last night as the Red Sox pay cable channel made its debut from Anaheim, Calif.

No cable system made it available to subscribers and not even New England Sports Network’s office at Fenway Park tuned in. So, announcers Kent Der Divanis and Mike Andrews had the choice of talking to each other or to no one.

The audience shutout is expected to continue for tonight’s Sox-Angels finale from Anaheim and tomorrow night’s game from Oakland.

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Unless the towns of Carver, Kingston and Plymouth in the Campbell cable chain pick up the picture soon, the first cablecast available to home viewers won’t be until April 17 for some 5500 cable subscribers in Natick. Richard McGrail, general manager of the Natick system, said yesterday he has agreed to add the channel but needs time to prepare his system to receive the picture.

That would be the start of coverage among New England’s one-million-plus cable homes. Peter Affe, general manager of NESN, is shooting for 100,000 subscribers by next January, when all Bruins home games will be carried.

There are two major reasons for the early blackout. NESN’s price of $5 per subscriber per month is double that of Sportschannel, which is carrying 40 Celtics games this season. And the Satcom 1R satellite that NESN is using makes it difficult or impossible for systems placed at low ground levels to pick up the signal without costly adjustments.

“We tried to pick it up as an experiment but just couldn’t,” said Peter Lev of Cablevision Service Co., which runs cable systems in the New Hampshire communities of Exeter, Bristol and Hillsboro. Lev was one of the few cable operators eager to introduce NESN to his subscribers at the suggested price.

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So is Debbie Merrill, owner of the cable system with 1700 subscribers in Waitsfield, Vt., tucked away in Sugar Bush Valley, some 200 miles from Fenway Park.

“We got a lot of calls from our people wanting it, and some remained interested even at the proposed price of $9 a month. But we may have to buy equipment to pick up the picture and I would have to know how many really wanted the channel before committing the money,” Merrill said.

Full Channel in Rhode Island, which provides cable for Barrington, Bristol and Warren, also would like to join NESN but must await equipment before being able to pick up the picture.

Even for the Campbell systems, there has been a delay in getting equipment. The owner of the system is Jack Campbell, who hardly is indifferent because he also owns WPLM-FM in Plymouth, the Red Sox’ flagship radio station.

The blackout has been confusing for subscribers, because most cable systems are reluctant to concede that they are involved in negotiations trying to knock down NESN’s price. And they refused to put games on free without a contract, lest the subscribers begin to pressure them to accept NESN’s fee structure.

Added to this is the limited marketing experience and slow pace of marketing systems. It wasn’t easy, in fact, to find out that no one at all saw last night’s telecast.

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