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The 10-year-old contract between the Sunshine Network and Time Warner Cable expired as the new year rang in, but Lightning fans won't begin feeling the pinch until Tuesday, when the first Sunshine hockey broadcast of 2003 -- the always-popular Tampa Bay-Detroit game -- will be absent from Time Warner systems.
In the ongoing public relations battle, Sunshine will host a viewing party 7 p.m. Tuesday at Hattricks (107 Franklin St., Tampa), and it is throwing in food specials, prizes, autographed memorabilia and ticket giveaways.
As for Time Warner, it announced it will begin rebating the proportionate cost of carrying Sunshine, which it stopped doing at midnight New Year's Eve.
The refunds will be about 90 cents a month, which Time Warner said it would rather do as opposed to making its subscribers pay the 40 percent more Sunshine is asking, or $1.26 a month.
Aside from the 56 Lightning games Sunshine is producing, it also carries the NBA's Miami Heat and Orlando Magic; replays of some Bucs, Jacksonville and Miami NFL preseason games; Florida, Florida State and Central Florida sporting events and a host of other programming.
The sides remain at an impasse. Magic fans (in Tampa and Orlando) will miss their first game tonight, which may increase pressure on both sides to get something done. The first Lightning game Tuesday could add a little more pressure.
Or perhaps, not.
Perhaps, this is it. Time Warner heads in one direction, Sunshine the other and fans are left with a choice: another cable operator, such as Verizon, or a satellite dish, as Sunshine is carried on both.
The best hope for viewers who wish to do neither is that somehow the sides meet in the middle.
At the moment, that middle seems far away.
MELTING ICE: Contrary to popular belief, Time Warner's Center Ice package is not the answer for those looking for the Lightning. Center Ice's selection is limited to the 26 games that Sunshine does not produce. One of those games is Saturday night at St. Louis. After that, subscribers have to wait until Jan. 14 (against Ottawa) and 24 (Dallas).
That's three games in January, or six fewer than Sunshine will air on cable systems that have renewed their contracts.
For those patient and not-so-ready-to-switch-cable-systems Lightning fans, WFTS-Ch. 28 will broadcast the Jan. 18 game in Philadelphia. WFTS agreed to broadcast four Sunshine-produced games before the season and has aired two. The final game is April 6.
CHA-CHING: Here's hoping Time Warner drops its silly claim that it doesn't want to make customers foot the bill for a channel not everyone watches. If that's really the case, can I get a refund for the extra Discovery and Disney Channels digital viewers "pay" for? Oh, and you can have the Latin HBO channel back as well ... and the Travel and Exercise channels ... and three or four of the shopping channels ... get my point?
Everyone pays for stations he doesn't watch. It's a bad argument to make that sports channels are somehow different.
OUCH: NFL on FOX's Jimmy Kimmel on CBS's Deion Sanders: "I happen to like Deion Sanders. He and I get our suits at the same place, but who does he think he is kidding with this comeback nonsense? When he retired, Deion Sanders was a below average player on a (bad) team. As a matter of fact, if you switch channel right now, you'll see he still is."
AROUND THE DIAL: ESPN Classic will celebrate the end of the college football season by airing a steady Saturday and Sunday diet of the best games, including the wild LSU-Kentucky game (8 p.m. Saturday) and FSU-Miami (6 p.m. Sunday). Don't be surprised if tonight's national title game doesn't somehow get squeezed in there as an "instant" classic.