360AM — Morning news briefing for Thursday, Mar. 29 (Updated: 8pm ET)

Cox Communications is unloading its 25% ownership stake in Discovery Communications Inc., in the second major programming re-alignment under new DCI pres/CEO David Zaslav since January. Cox will receive $1.275 billion in cash from Liberty Media‘s Discovery Holding Co. subsidiary plus ownership of the Travel Channel and its related businesses (including Antenna Audio, an audio tour guide company it acquired last year). The proposed deal, which is expected to close by mid-May, will change DCI’s ownership to 2/3 held by Liberty’s (meaning John Malone’s) DHC and 1/3 to Advance/Newhouse. DCI’s current ownership is 50% Liberty’s DHC and 25% each to Advance/Newhouse and Cox. Zaslav said in a statement: "The proposed transaction will simplify Discovery’s ownership structure, further streamline our operations and give the company more strategic flexibility." Travel Channel Media head Pat Younge will be staying on, Cox confirmed to CableFAX today; Younge’s wife and kids remained in the U.K. for school reasons when former Discovery Networks president Billy Campbell hired him as EVP/GM of the network in Feb. 2005; Younge was promoted to his present position in April 2006. The Travel Channel would become the only national network wholly owned by Cox, whose CEO Pat Esser tells CableFAX that the Travel Channel would play across mobile, VOD and broadband so he doesn’t intend to sell the network to another programming group such as Turner, AETN, NBCU or even fellow cable operator (and multi-network owner) Comcast. [Release | New York Times | Variety]

In Demand announced a deal today—but not with MLB. It’s distributing the Ring of Combat mixed martial arts pay-per-view to cable operators on June 29. [Release] In Demand remains locked in a stand-off with Baseball, whose commissioner Bud Selig today defended MLB‘s hardline stance with In Demand’s cable operator owners over Extra Innings. Selig said he "agonized over" the decision to go with DirecTV. "Obviously our objective is to get our product in front of as many people as possible … But the number of people who can’t get DirecTV is very, very small." [AP] Separately, MLB and ESPN extended their international contract through the 2010 World Series. [Release]
 
Verizon launches FiOS1, its first local TV station, tomorrow in Washington, D.C., Northern Virginia and parts of Maryland. Content will include the expected news, traffic and weather reports. Of particular note is a sports roster that includes MLB games from MASN; and a production deal with pioneering videojournalist Michael Rosenblum, who taught the BBC, Canada’s CBC, Oxygen (back in the day) and Current TV how to create VJ-produced content. Rosenblum’s company is producing Push-Pause, a series of user-generated video reports from trained "citizen video journalists." FiOS subscribers can also submit their own videos to the series. [Release] Separately, Verizon is expanding FiOS in NY’s Westchester county.

SportsNet NY president Jon Litner is being promoted to president of Comcast SportsNet‘s eight regional sports networks, reporting to Comcast Programming president Jeff Shell. Litner succeeds Jack Williams, who becomes chairman. Litner tells the New York Times his only regret about leaving SNY, a joint venture of the NY Mets, Comcast and Time Warner Cable: "We didn’t triple Mets ratings." [Release]

Gotuit shared its VOD and broadband video stats at yesterday’s Carat Exchange. Highlights: Hip Hop music videos are #1 both platforms, accounting for 45% of VOD and 47% of broadband usage. Its VOD households prefer entertainment news to movie trailers, the reverse of its broadband users. Peak traffic times: late night for VOD, daytime for broadband. MediaPost has more on Gotuit’s findings plus a story on why David Verklin and Mitch Oscar open the Carat Exchange digital think-tank to Madison Avenue’s forward thinkers—including their competition at other agencies.

PROGRAMMING

BET Networks helps Thelonius Monk Institute relocate its jazz education program from Los Angeles to New Orleans. [Release]

"There she goes…" (again). CMT drops Miss America after only one pageant, leaving organizers looking for a TV deal for ’08 and beyond. [AP]

FEARnet, Comcast’s VOD/broadband horror channel that launched last Halloween, is expanding to sci-fi, suspense and thriller genres. Kagan profiles the network, which now accounts for one in three free movie downloads on Comcast on Demand.

Fox News will co-sponsor primary debates for each party’s presidential field this fall with the Congressional Black Caucus Political Education and Leadership Institute. The Democratic debate will be televised Sept. 23 from Detroit. The CBC Institute and Fox have yet to set a date and place for a planned Republican debate. [Release]

Fuel TV will premiere The 808, a seven-episode series about a gang of punk surfers (or surfing street fighters) on July 7. Fuel’s catching a (you guessed it) wave of surf culture shows on cable, including MTV‘s Maui Fever and Living Lahaina and HBO‘s upcoming John From Cincinnati. [Hollywood Reporter]

Vanity Fair‘s cover on The Sopranosextended finale on HBO is now posted online. Time magazine ponders the series’ impending demise here.

Nick News with Linda Ellerbee explores autism, Apr. 22. [Release]

Oxygen ordered a six-ep spin-off of The Bad Girls Club, its top-rated original series that wraps its first season on May 1. Bad Girls Road Trip, slated for June, will feature three of the original housemates plus casting for TBGC 2, which premieres in the fourth quarter. [Hollywood Reporter]

TV One, Sí TV and The Africa Channel co-found the Alliance for Diversity in Programming, a lobby group formed to fight a la carte regulation.

Univision‘s sale closed yesterday and became effective today. [Release]

USA Network held its ad sales upfront event last night in New York; more information is here.

IN OTHER NEWS

The big debate at yesterday’s digital TV transition hearing on the Hill: whether more funding (and how much) is needed to help Americans meet the DTV deadline. [Dingell statement | CNET]

Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts received a 2006 compensation package valued at $27.8 million. [AP]

Buckeye deploys Terayon for digital ad insertion. [Release]

Insight starts marketing phone service in Northern Kentucky [Cincinnati Enquirer] while Comcast launches phone in Grass Valley, Nevada City and Sacramento, CA. [Grass Valley Union | Sacramento Bee]

Gemstar TV-Guide bought rival interactive program guide firm Aptiv Digital for $16 million. Aptiv’s TV navigational software includes the Passport series of IPGs used by Time Warner Cable, RCN and Cox. [Release]

Michael Eisner’s Web studio, Vuguru, introduces its first production, Prom Queen, on Monday. The daily :90 short-form series (80 segments in 80 days) will evolve into a feature, Eisner tells the San Francisco Chronicle. He gives Vuguru "maybe 75 years" to become as big as Disney, which he says he’s still "rooting for." MySpace users get a sneak peek at Prom Queen on Sunday.

The Wall Street Journal profiles Sprint CEO Gary Forsee. AP checks out cellphone TV at CTIA and tests mobile TV services from Verizon‘s V Cast and Modeo. Coming soon to cellphones: social networking. [RCR]

NAMIC‘s 2007 Vision Award winners announced.

Dish Network recognized its ITV partners. [Release]

Small businesses eye online video to capture local ad dollars. [Search Engine Watch]

$48 billion government phone contract awarded to Qwest, AT&T and Verizon. [AP]
  
Amdocs sponsors pro mono-skier Joe Tompkins at SkiTAM, Mar. 29-Apr. 1. [Release]

A leg wrapped in plastic washed up at Cablevision pres/CEO Jim Dolan’s Long Island mansion—and it wasn’t a stunt by HBO to promote The Sopranos‘ return. [NY Post]

Comcast staged a product demo in Martha’s Vineyard; its DVR service was deemed "yar." [MV Times]

Shirley Brady

• Click here for 360AM news briefing for Wednesday, Mar. 28 >>

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