NFL Network Is Can't-See TV
Friday, November 23, 2007
The NFL Network, which last night began its second season of regular season broadcasts, is reaching far fewer households than NFL leaders envisioned largely because of an ongoing fight with some of the country's largest cable companies over how much their customers should be charged to receive the network.
The dispute promises to become more contentious in the coming weeks because the network's slate of eight Thursday and Saturday prime-time games between now and the end of the regular season includes two games that will be among the most highly attractive contests of the season.
The channel is carrying Green Bay at Dallas next Thursday night, a matchup of teams that are tied for the best record in the NFC. It will also broadcast the New England Patriots' visit to the New York Giants in a Saturday night game on the final weekend of the regular season, with the Patriots possibly playing to clinch an unbeaten regular season. The games will be broadcast over public airwaves only in the home markets of the competing teams.
"I'm not sure how that thing is going to work out, but one way or another it has to be worked out," NBC broadcaster John Madden said during a conference call this week. "To have a game of any magnitude and people not be able to see it, that's not what the NFL is all about. We've always had games available and we've never gone to any pay-per-view or any of those types of things. To go in that direction where some fans can't see it, I think that has to be fixed."
The crux of the dispute is that the NFL wants its channel, which has around-the-clock programming all year in addition to the eight regular season games, carried on basic or digital basic cable. Several large cable operators, including Comcast, Time Warner and Cablevision, contend that there's not enough demand by customers to justify the cost of putting the NFL Network in a basic package; the larger cable companies carry the channel on a sports tier that entails an additional fee.
The NFL is hoping the presence of two marquee late-season games on its network will help increase public pressure on the cable systems to meet its demands.
"The cable operators that have been holding out have been very clear with us they don't think our fans want these games and they don't think there's much demand for these games," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said during a conference call with reporters this week. "We don't agree with that."
Goodell reiterated what he said at a meeting of the NFL's owners late last month in Philadelphia -- that negotiations with the cable companies are at a standstill. "At this point in time, we don't see any resolution to this," he said. "There are no negotiations ongoing."
Cable operators contend that it is the NFL, not the cable companies, that put the league into this position when it decided to grant its own network exclusive rights to eight regular season games rather than to its traditional broadcast partners, CBS, NBC and Fox, in addition to ESPN.
"While the NFL claims that it wants its games to be seen by the widest possible audiences, it's actually their rules that limit which games fans can watch," said David L. Cohen, an executive vice president of the Comcast Corp. "It's the NFL that designates which cities can have over-the-air broadcasts of specific games. It is also the NFL that decided to take these eight games off of free broadcast television and to try to enrich themselves at the expense of their fans by creating a multi-billion dollar asset called the NFL Network."
This week, Comcast sent a letter to the NFL Network demanding that the network and its representatives stop publicly urging Comcast customers to switch to satellite. The NFL's Web site includes a link to a "I want my NFL Network" page that encourages fans to switch to a TV provider that "will bring you the NFL Network, not hold you hostage."
In addition to the Green Bay-Dallas and New York-New England games, the NFL Network will broadcast games between Chicago and Washington, Denver and Houston, Cincinnati and San Francisco, Pittsburgh and St. Louis, and Dallas and Carolina.