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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

Viewers in Las Vegas Market Upset as Channel is Moved to Digital

17 January 2005

The Game Show Network, a cable channel that began airing classic game shows a decade ago but has recently ramped up programming of casino game tournaments, boasts 56.6 million viewers nationwide and a strong following among gamblers and seniors in Las Vegas, its No. 4 market.

But local cable subscribers will no longer be able to see GSN in its usual spot on the cable lineup. As of this year, Cox Communications Inc. dropped the channel from its "preferred basic" analog cable lineup and moved it to digital cable, a service that costs extra.

The move has angered loyal GSN-watchers like Dorothy Ames, a retired woman in North Las Vegas.

"I'd been away on vacation and came back New Year's Eve and it was still running," Ames said. "Then it was just gone."

Ames, a regular casino-goer, found GSN by channel surfing and "fell in love" with its broadcasts of classic game shows like "The Price is Right." She admits being taken with more recent shows like the "World Series of Blackjack," a GSN creation modeled after the legendary World Series of Poker at Binion's Horseshoe.

"They're fun," she said of the gambling programs.

GSN President and Chief Executive Rich Cronin said the network is "very upset" about the move to digital, considered a cable netherworld crowded with little-watched and hard to find niche programs.

"If anyone should be on basic cable, it's us," Cronin said.

The network is still offered on analog cable systems in other major markets as well as via satellite services.

GSN ranked 50th in viewership nationwide among major cable channels from September through the end of last year, according to Nielsen Media Research. With 147,000 Nielsen viewers, the channel came in just below the Travel Channel but ahead of other basic cable tier programming such as the TV Guide Channel, Oxygen and CNBC.

Many viewers like the game show format and play along with the shows on the company's Internet site for cash or prizes, Cronin said. Seniors are often on fixed incomes and don't want to pay more for digital cable, he said.

Cox Communications spokeswoman Stephanie Stallworth said the decision to move the channel is part of an overall effort to eventually migrate analog cable networks to the digital format. Digital subscribers receive access to hundreds of channels via a compressed signal.

Relocating one analog channel frees up bandwidth for six to 12 digital channels, which offers customers more choices, Stallworth said.

Previously on channel 75, GSN will relocate to channel 344 and bump Ovation, an arts network, from Cox altogether.

Stallworth declined further comment on why GSN was chosen over other channels, saying such negotiations are confidential. Broadcasting costs and ratings, among a variety of other issues, factor into the decision, she said.

Ames, who plays live bingo with other seniors in town, said she won't pay more for digital cable.

She said a Cox representative told her GSN moved to digital in part because it was the "lowest rated" of the basic cable networks.

"I don't buy that," she said. "There are a lot of people who love it. I hear people talking about it all the time."

For analog cable subscribers who still want GSN, Cox is offering a six-month discount of 50 percent on the added $7.95 monthly fee for digital service. Subscribers willing to live without preferred basic channels can receive channels 2 through 17, plus digital channels, for $21.28 per month. Preferred basic cable service without digital channels costs $39.99 per month.

Stallworth said Cox hasn't received many complaints about the move.

The cable company has switched movie and pay-per-view channels to the digital format in the past year, in part because digital cable is much more difficult for consumers to steal than analog cable.

"Decisions are made in the best interest of customers," Stallworth said.

The county has only received about 20 complaints so far from GSN viewers, though Las Vegas and Henderson may have also received calls, said Roma Haynes, franchise services coordinator for Clark County. Cox has about 400,000 subscribers across the valley.

Customers similarly complained when Cox opted to bump GSN to digital in 2002. Cox then decided to keep the network on its basic tier.