No Clear Resolution In NFL-Cable Rift

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 14, 2008

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell tells a story about recently switching cable television companies at his home. His new cable provider carries the league-owned NFL Network as part of a basic package, he says. Soon after changing, he answered the phone at his house and found himself talking to a sales representative from his old cable company.

"He said, 'Well, can we ask why you're no longer with us?' " Goodell said during an interview last week, declining to identify the company. "And I said, 'Well, you don't have the NFL Network.' He said: 'No, we're negotiating to get it right now. Do you think we can get you back? We're negotiating, sir, very hard on this.'

"I said, 'Well, let me know.' I hung up. My wife was standing there and she said, 'You loved that, didn't you?' "

To Goodell, the point of the story is that the large cable companies with which the league remains in disputes over pricing and distribution of the NFL Network aren't negotiating in good faith, as they claim. The cable companies tell a different story, blaming the NFL for the standoff. There still appears to be no immediate resolution to the dispute in sight, and the issue recently has produced a flurry of letters between Capitol Hill and the NFL's offices in New York.

In the meantime, the NFL Network reaches only an estimated 42 million U.S. households as it again carries a package of eight prime-time games this season on Thursdays and Saturdays, including last night's Jets-Patriots showdown for first place in the AFC East. That's far fewer households than Goodell and NFL owners envisioned when they decided to put regular season games on the channel, passing up the rights fees they could have gotten by selling the package to another network.

Yet Goodell says that he and the owners remain committed to the NFL Network and believe that a recent ruling by the Federal Communications Commission will help break the negotiating stalemate and produce an eventual resolution to the dispute with the cable companies. "This will be resolved through negotiations," Goodell said. "I'm sure of that. We would like to get to that and resolve that as quickly as possible. In the meantime, our consumers are the ones that are losing, the cable operators' consumers and our consumers."

The NFL has been at odds with Comcast and other large cable companies over the league's contention that each of the companies should put the NFL Network on a basic digital cable package. The companies have maintained that the channel belongs on a sports tier so that only those cable customers who want it have to pay for it. Last month the FCC's media bureau, acting on a complaint filed by the NFL against Comcast in May, issued a preliminary ruling that there was a prima facie basis for two of the league's claims and sent the case to an administrative law judge.

"I think the FCC ruling is very significant because what it says to everybody is that there was discrimination and that there was retaliation against the NFL Network," Goodell said. "There hasn't been a fair negotiation. I think that's what we're trying to tell people on the Hill and tell the general public: We want to negotiate. We want to negotiate fairly. They clearly have not negotiated fairly, and that's been demonstrated."

NFL officials say that Comcast can, if it chooses, deliver the NFL Network to a much larger audience at no extra charge with a flick of a switch because there already is a negotiated agreement in place to carry the channel on its broader digital tier.

Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice said in a written statement: "Comcast offers the NFL Network to customers today and they can watch every NFL game the league makes available on cable television. Under our agreement with the NFL, which the league negotiated and signed, we offer NFL Network as part of our Sports Entertainment Package. This is the best and fairest way to provide their expensive programming to customers, because viewers who want to watch the channel will be able to see it, while others who prefer not to receive it will not be forced to pay for it.

"The NFL makes its own rules on who can see their games. As we saw last season when the Giants played the Patriots, if the NFL really wanted all of its fans to see the games, then they would make the games available to everyone on broadcast television."

Last season's Patriots-Giants game, which was simulcast on NBC and CBS in addition to the NFL Network as the Patriots completed an unbeaten regular season, was mentioned in a recent letter from Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and 12 other U.S. senators to Goodell that charged the NFL with "moving toward a pay television model."

Goodell wrote letters in response denying that, and urging senators to focus on the FCC ruling. The NFL points to its longstanding policy of having games that are carried on cable channels, including those now on the NFL Network, also carried on over-the-air TV in the home markets of the competing teams. The senators' letter to Goodell criticized the NFL for defining those markets too narrowly.

David L. Cohen, an executive vice president for Comcast, also wrote to Specter, disputing contentions made by Goodell in his reply letter to Specter and writing that "the claims that the NFL Network has brought to the FCC have not been decided upon by the Commission or any other finder of fact. . . . The proceeding [before the administrative law judge] is now underway. In the judge's first order, he clarified that the NFL Network has the burden of proving its case against Comcast, and during a conference with the parties, he also stated his preference that the parties work things out through private negotiations."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company