Execs at marginal cable channels who want to know how determined pay TV operators are to clear away what they consider programming deadwood should keep an eye on the carriage spat between Madison Square Garden and Time Warner Cable. They’re engaged in the season’s hottest battle over programming costs as they negotiate renewal terms for their current contract that expires on December 31. Per usual, there’s a lot of noise about who’d be most responsible for inconveniencing consumers if there’s in impasse — with most of the focus on the possible loss of popular regional sports channels MSG and MSG+, which carry the New York Knicks, Rangers, Islanders, Devils, and Buffalo Sabres. MSG has a hotline (1-888-keepmsg) that encourages Time Warner Cable customers to jump to another pay TV provider. “As excitement builds for the return of the NBA, Time Warner Cable is threatening to pull MSG Networks from its systems,” the programmer says. The cable company says that “the ball’s in MSG’s court, so these channels will come off only if MSG pulls the plug.”

But the most important issue is whether the No. 2 cable company will be able to drop MSG’s music video channel Fuse from its lineup — potentially resulting in $10M a year in lost revenue for MSG. “Fuse is watched by fewer than one-tenth of one percent of the customers who have it available — that’s just 4,000 customers out of more than 7.4M,” says Mike Angus, Time Warner Cable’s SVP Content Acquisition. MSG’s effort to package the music service with its popular regional sports channels “is nothing more than a tax on New York sports fans.”  MSG says that Fuse “appeals to a growing audience of a desirable demographic and its unique partnership with MSG Entertainment ensures it offers programming, access, and promotion that no one else can.” The average pay TV provider pays about six cents a month for each customer who receives Fuse, SNL Kagan estimates.

How will this play out? Susquehanna Financial Group analyst Vasily Karasyov says that, like most of these carriage fights, both sides will probably settle before they do too much damage to each other. MSG may decide that Fuse isn’t worth the fight: He figures that the programmer would lose $8M for each month Time Warner Cable doesn’t carry MSG, MSG+, and Fuse. If MSG caves, then it could be curtains for Fuse, which would lose about 27% of its subscribers ending up with about 43M. In that case, “the unprofitable network will continue to face challenges” and “remain a drag” on MSG’s cash flow, Karasyov says.