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The cable TV industry's clash over sports programming costs went another round Wednesday.


Cox Communications


comments about ESPN rate increases are "flat-out not true," ESPN's chief said Wednesday.

Though Cox has said that


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ESPN is seeking annual rate increases of 20%, it is seeking an increase of "significantly less than that," ESPN President George Bodenheimer told attendees of a New York investment conference Wednesday. It was unclear from his comments whether ESPN had sought such an increase from Cox in the past.

Bodenheimer's statements continue what has been a uniquely public dispute between a cable operator and TV programmer about the cost of programming. In recent months, Cox has complained that ESPN and other sports programmers are seeking burdensome rate increases. ESPN has responded by saying that the price increases it institutes are neither as harmful as Cox characterizes them nor out of line with the value they have for both operators of cable TV systems and their subscribers.

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On Wednesday, Disney's shares rose 27 cents, to $22.36, while Cox's fell 12 cents, to $33.26.

Bodenheimer, a 22-year veteran of ESPN, told investors at the Credit Suisse First Boston Media and Telecom Week conference that it's not unusual for an operator and a programming supplier to be fighting over costs. The cable business has always been "bare-knuckle," Bodenheimer said.

What's unique about the current conflict, said Bodenheimer, is that it is playing out so publicly. Cox, for example, has launched a Web site attacking ESPN and sports TV costs called

"By and large, I view this as a negotiating tactic," Bodenheimer said.

Bodenheimer he said he was optimistic that ESPN and Cox could reach an agreement under which Cox would carry ESPN on a basic tier. The companies' carriage contract is due to expire at the end of March, he said.

If Cox were to drop ESPN, Bodenheimer said it would be a "disaster" for sports fans, Cox's shareholders and Cox overall.

Later, the executive said that Cox was one of the first cable operators to agree to pay extra to carry the high-definition version of ESPN that the company launched earlier this year. "If ESPN is that disastrous for their business, they have a funny way of showing it," Bodenheimer said.

Addressing the fees that programmers pay to sports leagues for the right to carry their sporting events -- a key element of rising programming costs -- Bodenheimer said that sports rights "are in some respects flattening out." Whether that trend would hold true among major sports contracts, he said, remains to be seen.

Asked whether it was important for ESPN to have rights to the four major professional sports -- football, hockey, baseball and basketball -- Bodenheimer said it wasn't necessary for ESPN's long-term success. He said it hadn't hurt ESPN to drop its longtime telecasts of NASCAR races.