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Cable providers consider cutting out sports to lower your TV bill

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Sports programming is driving up your television bill, and cable providers aren't happy about it. Though football, basketball, and baseball may seem to be some of the most watched content around, that's far from the truth: TV tracking firm Nielsen found that only four percent of households tune in to watch sports outside of the NFL, reports The Wall Street Journal. But despite the low viewership, cable providers are paying disproportionately huge sums in order to carry networks like ESPN — and they're passing those costs along to consumers.

AT&T wants to offer the network a la carte

AT&T is now using that poor viewership as a reason for not carrying CSN Houston — a regional sports network that broadcasts games from the NBA's Houston Rockets and the MLB's Houston Astros throughout Texas and its bordering states. The Journal reports that DirectTV has also refused to carry the network, leaving it absent from over half of local homes. The hope is that by not carrying CSN Houston and other expensive sports networks, cable providers will be able to offer television service at a lower cost and ultimately appeal to more consumers.

AT&T instead wants to offer the pricey sports network a la carte, giving customers the option to pay only if they want to. But CSN Houston — along with other regional sports networks — isn't interested. Because television networks earn a small monthly fee for every subscriber, being bundled into a standard cable package would mean a far more substantial earnings for the network.

The Tennis Channel recently ended a court dispute with Comcast over that very issue. The channel sued because it was offered on a separate sports tier rather than as part of a standard cable bundle, leaving the network out of a massive pool of subscribers who would have had to pay whether they wanted it or not. Comcast won the dispute, but the Tennis Channel has already filed to appeal the decision.

But though sports networks are expensive, sports content may still be important to hang on to. The Journal reports that nearly all sports content is watched live — an important point for cable providers that now have to compete with the likes of Hulu and Netflix. Sports programming is one of the few holdouts tying viewers to their television sets, and until it's broadly available online, it may be one of the best ways for cable providers to prevent viewers from cutting the cord.

Update: this article has been altered to note that NFL viewership is not included in the four percent of sports viewing households.