TV fix for the ultimate Bolts fan

Bright House Networks considers an all-Tampa Bay Lightning station featuring hockey highlights and interview programs.

Published November 22, 2005

TAMPA - In a move that reflects the Tampa Bay Lightning's growing confidence in its brand name, the defending Stanley Cup champion may launch its own 24-hour cable TV channel on Bright House Networks.

It would be just the second NHL franchise to do so, after the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Although similar plans for a single-team station by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fell apart last year, the Lightning and Bright House are hopeful hockey will succeed where football failed.

"We think there is demand and an audience in this marketplace for this kind of programming," Harry Hutt, Lightning executive vice president for corporate sales and marketing, said Monday.

An all-Bolts, all-the-time channel wouldn't feature live games, which are carried on OLN, Sun Sports and, starting in January, NBC. Rather, possible content would include highlights shows, talk shows featuring players and coaches, and taped broadcasts of classic games, Hutt said.

For Bright House, an all-Lightning channel would be another incentive for customers to sign up or remain with the company. The Tampa Bay area's dominant cable TV company, which could soon face competition for TV customers from Verizon Communications, already offers exclusive local programming that includes 24-hour news channel Bay News 9 and local sports channel Catch 47.

In October, Bright House announced a new partnership with the University of South Florida under which Catch 47 will have the rights to broadcast select USF football and men's basketball games and other athletic events.

The Lightning's plans may have the ring of deja vu for some local sports fans. In August 2004, the Buccaneers said they planned to launch their own 24-hour TV channel on Bright House. But their proposal fell through later in the year when the National Football League decreed a moratorium on team-exclusive channels, in part to avoid competing with its own NFL Network, a new cable TV channel carried on many major cable systems but not on Bright House.

The only team-specific channels, for the Dallas Cowboys and the Atlanta Falcons, are expected to fold when their contracts end.

The Lightning faces a different situation with the NHL, which has struggled to expand its small U.S. TV audience for hockey games.

The league has its own TV channel - the NHL Network - but it hasn't yet been launched outside Canada. No U.S. NHL team has its own cable channel.

"Our pitch to them was we'd love to be the forerunner on this," the Lightning's Hutt said. "We could be the guinea pig for what the future might look like."

--Louis Hau can be reached at hau@sptimes.com or 813 226-3404.