Sunshine and TWC finally settle spat

It was a dark time for Central Florida sports fans.

For the first 71 days of 2003, the Sunshine Network, which specializes in covering local college and professional sports, including the Orlando Magic and Tampa Bay Lightning, did not appear on Time Warner Cable programming. The reason for the break in service, the first in the 10 years since the two companies began a relationship, was what became a nasty contract dispute.

But, just as quickly as the spat began, it ended. On Thursday, the Sunshine Network returned its feed to Time Warner, and customers began receiving the station. The service resumed after the two companies agreed to a new contract.

Cathy Weeden, general manager for Sunshine, said the network and Time Warner agreed not to discuss the terms of the contract. However, she described it as multi-year and “fair and equitable to both parties.”

“It was a very long negotiation process (during which) both sides listened to the other side,” Weeden said. “We’re happy, but most of all, hopefully, the fans are happy.”

Sunshine pulled its feed to Time Warner on New Year’s Day after its contract was not renewed. Time Warner spokesmen said a renewal was not granted because Sunshine “demanded” an “extreme rate increase,” which, they said, was somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 percent, with more double-digit increases in subsequent years.

By mid-January, contract discussions had devolved into public finger-pointing between the two companies. Both sides questioned the other’s commitment to finding a solution, and the blackout appeared to be indefinite.

During this time, satellite companies and other alternative cable providers attempted to cash in on the dispute, actively marketing their list of channels including Sunshine. The satellite provider DirecTV went so far as to hire two airplanes to fly above the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ NFC divisional playoff game advertising Sunshine.

Also underscoring the controversy has been the play of the Lightning. Now a decade old, the team has spent most of its brief history as the National Hockey League’s doormat. But this season, the Lightning has battled for first place in the Southeastern Division and seems poised to make its first playoff appearance since the 1995-1996 campaign.

Time Warner customers, however, have not been able to see Sunshine’s coverage of the team for a large portion of the season. Weeden said Sunshine will take steps to make up for the lost time. Included in those steps are the addition of two Lightning games not already on the schedule. Fans enjoyed one of those games Saturday.

“No. 1 to us is making sure our fans know we’re back, and we’re there with them,” Weeden said. “We’ve always enjoyed very strong relationships with our teams. We’re the link, and we take that responsibility seriously.”

Weeden said the blackout period was difficult for Sunshine. She said the company suffered financially.

“We probably suffered with our fans,” Weeden said. “We’ve got work to do, making sure we’re with our fans.”

During the break in coverage, Time Warner replaced Sunshine, locally on channel 31, with ESPN news. That channel will be offered, as it was previously, on the provider’s digital package. Also, customers receiving extended NBA and NHL packages as compensation for the loss of Sunshine will reportedly continue to receive those services.