A grudge match may keep ESPN, Fox Sports off your TV.

Season on the Blink 

A grudge match may keep ESPN, Fox Sports off your TV.

By the time the Indians wrap up their rebuilding phase, there may be few viewers left to bask in the glory.

Fox Sports, the cable network that brought you 150 games' worth of Tribe futility last season, could be too expensive for cable providers' tastes by the time the team gets good. That's because an ongoing beef between cable companies and sports networks like ESPN and Fox Sports is coming to a head, and neither side appears interested in blinking.

At issue are the networks' escalating contract demands. Cox Communications, with 73,000 Northeast Ohio subscribers, is nearing the end of multiyear deals with ESPN and Fox Sports. The two networks' fees already constitute nearly a third of Cox's basic cable rate, and they are reportedly seeking fee hikes of 20 and 35 percent, respectively. Cox, meanwhile, is asking for a double scotch and aspirin.

"We can't keep passing these costs on to consumers -- not in the inflation period we're in," says spokesman Bobby Amirshahi, who punctuates his words with terms like "unconscionable." Cox big boss James Robbins recently went public with his intention to blow off the networks' demands -- even if it means going without their programs for a while.

The tough talk could lead to Cox dumping ESPN by the end of March. Fox Sports' contract extends past the 2004 baseball season, but the network would not comment on its contracts with other metro cable providers. Adelphia did not return Punch's calls.

The ultimate solution will probably be a tier of sports programming that would be offered as a premium. But there is a silver lining: Cox Cleveland has added Bravo to its basic lineup, effective October 21. So while you may not see the Tribe's next Era of Champions, at least you'll see Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

Girl power
Speaking of the Tribe, the wrestling match between former pitcher Chuck Finley and former wife Tawny Kitaen continues. You remember Kitaen, otherwise known as That Girl Who Writhed Around on a Car in That Whitesnake Video. Back in April 2002, she kicked Finley with a high-heeled shoe. The move started a cool new trend of women beating up their celebrity husbands. Even Dick Goddard joined the fun.

But Punch lost track of the soap opera, following the Indians' fire sale. Luckily, Kitaen recently appeared on The Howard Stern Show to provide an update.

It appears that Finley wasn't pleased by the prospect of the ex-Little Missus unveiling their sordid life on national radio. "He said, 'You know what? I am taping that show, and you are going to have to put up with me and my lawyers when you get back,'" said Kitaen.

Stern briefly wondered whether he should worry about having to fight Finley, before Kitaen reminded him, "If I can beat him up, you can." Ouch.

WOIO's freefall
Channel 19 "Action News" has been touting itself with the slogan, "Thousands of viewers can't be wrong." Unfortunately, this is a market of millions, and the station's ratings suggest that the few viewers who are watching 19 are indeed wrong. Among signs that point to a freefall:

· WOIO scored a paltry 2.7 rating for its 5 p.m. newscast and 2.4 for its 5:30 p.m. show. (That means less than 3 percent of metro households were tuned in.) This comes seven months after the arrival of news director Stephen Doerr, who was brought in to turn the station's fortunes around. The ratings before Doerr's arrival: 3.1 at 5 p.m. and 3.2 at 5:30.

· The station recently unleashed foul-mouthed biker Tattoo Gypsy -- the name Rock Outlaw was apparently taken -- to provide commentary during the 11 p.m. broadcast. He's weighed in on such topics as gun control, veterans, and Social Security. One contributor to newsblues.com -- an internet gossip site for talking heads -- says of Gypsy's contributions: "He smokes a cigarette and gives out his biker views of the world. Every other word was bleeped out. He kept talking about cracking down on crime means frying more sons of bitches. Half of the report was a bleep. It was the funniest thing I've ever seen in local news."

The majesty of Cleveland
A Washington Post travel writer recently spent a long weekend in Cleveland -- and went gaga for the city's cultural charms. "Three days of exploring left me thrilled with the offerings," exclaimed Gary Lee in the paper's October 5 edition.

Lee spent most of his weekend at University Circle. He admired the Museum of Art ("one of the country's finest and most accessible venues"), the Peter B. Lewis Building ("worth a trip in itself"), and the Botanical Gardens ("transplanted me halfway across the globe"). The writer also declared Tremont "SoHo-like." We're guessing that he never actually made it to the Flats, however, since he called it "an inviting knot of clubs and restaurants."

Okay, so travel writers are the kind of people who can gush about Youngstown as if it were Venice. But you have to take your props where you can get 'em.

Lee reserved his criticism for the people of Cleveland. Specifically, he wondered where they were. "Travelers looking for up-to-the-minute nightlife or the buzz of a crowd would be hard put to find either here," he wrote.

But an investigative reporter Lee is not. His travelogue conveys the Convention & Visitors Bureau's claim that leisure visitors have more than doubled since 1994. The CVB is prone to ludicrous assertions, such as the notion that tourism employs 67,000 people here. If this were true, tourism would be a larger employer than University Hospitals, the Cleveland Clinic, MetroHealth, the City of Cleveland, the Catholic Diocese, KeyCorp, First Energy, and Tops -- combined.

Stupid bitch
Punch certainly got an earful after our recent cover story about men who pursue plus-sized ladies ("Big Game Hunters," October 1). Staff writer Sarah Fenske received more than 50 e-mails, as well as inquiries from radio producers from Buffalo to Portland. The New York Post even touted the story as identifying a hot trend in Cleveland.

While much of the feedback rose to the intellectual caliber that Punch has grown to expect from Scene's erudite readers, some of it was a bit more, shall we say . . . emotional. One writer told Fenske that she was a "disgrace to women everywhere." Another wrote: "I don't know how you look at yourself in the mirror or sleep at night. You are totally pathetic and lack integrity."

But the most articulate response came from an unnamed writer: "I think you are a stupid, stupid bitch for ever publishing that article. You make me sick. You are a fucking WOMAN and you choose to give these assholes press on the horrible practice of hogging? . . . Bitch. Stupid, stupid bitch!"

In an exclusive interview, Fenske acknowledged being a "stupid bitch," but vigorously rejected the "stupid, stupid" allegation.

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