Sixteen independent television stations, including WTTG-TV-5 and WDCA-TV-20 in Washington, have been excluded from bidding for local market telecasts of ESPN's National Football League games, and independents are upset by the cable-sports network's decision.

In its three-year, $153 million deal with the NFL, ESPN agreed to sell rights to broadcast stations in the home and away markets of the games it is televising, enabling viewers without cable in those areas to watch their local teams. But ESPN is barring certain independent stations that are widely carried by cable systems -- the same systems that would pay ESPN to carry NFL games. In Washington, it is likely one of the three network affiliates -- WRC-TV-4, WJLA-TV-7 or WUSA-TV-9 -- will buy the rights to ESPN's Redskins-at-Miami game Dec. 20.

Preston Padden, president of the Washington-based Association of Independent Television Stations, wrote a letter of protest to Capital Cities/ABC, which owns 80 percent of ESPN, saying, "It seems patently unfair to declare our stations ineligible because of distant cable carriage -- a phenomenon over which the originating station has absolutely no control."

Tim Lynch, general manager at WDCA, was upset at the news that his station could not bid for ESPN's Redskins game Dec. 20. "What ESPN and the NFL are doing is clearly not in the interest of the viewing public," he said. "I'd be happy to pick up the game and let them black me out from cable systems. We're on the Raleigh, N.C., cable system, for instance, and they can black us out there. ESPN's playing both ends against the middle. Obviously, they don't want Raleigh showing the game off Channel 20, but they can control that."

But Andrew Brilliant, an ESPN senior vice president for legal affairs, said that the cable network cannot control cable systems' rebroadcasts of over-the-air independents.

"I can't tell a cable system to black out another signal," he said. "I don't have that right. Our primary interest is getting as much revenue as we can from these sales. A cable system would say, 'Why should I pay ESPN when I can pick it up free off a distant signal?' And, of course, we also want to limit the overall exposure of these games outside of the home and away {markets} to strengthen the value of our package."

ESPN has rights to four preseason and eight Sunday night regular season games. While prohibiting the largest independents and superstations (such as WWOR and WPIX in New York and WGN in Chicago) from the bidding, ESPN says at least one independent in each market will be eligible. That independent in Washington would be little-watched WFTY-TV-50, but it is more likely that a network affiliate would buy the rights. In cities in which ESPN already has conducted bidding for preseason games -- Denver, Miami, Chicago and Minneapolis -- three ABC stations and one NBC affiliate have won local-market rights.

ESPN's list of ineligible bidders has further incited a recent debate between independents and cable, with the independents complaining about the continued loss of programs from free television to cable.

"There's nothing WTTG {which televises Redskins preseason games} can do to stop the cable carrier from importing it into Richmond," Padden said. "We thought we had a simple solution: let WTTG bid on the games, and, if their signal is imported into Richmond by a cable operator and if that causes a problem for ESPN's exclusivity, the cable operator has every opportunity to black it out."

Cable operators near Washington, for instance, might look at it this way: ESPN is asking for an extra 10 to 14 cents per subscriber per month for the entire NFL package, yet the Redskins game alone might be worth the rest of them combined. If the cable operator can get the Redskins game, without paying anything additional, from one of the independent stations it already carries, is it worth paying all that extra money to ESPN?

"It's a very expensive product for us," said Matt Zollar, marketing manager for Continental Cable in Richmond, which is picking up the ESPN package and also imports WTTG and WDCA. "The package would be considerably less valuable to us {if WTTG or WDCA could buy the Redskins-Miami game}. I don't think it would have been a deal-breaker, but we definitely would've been grumbling."