News

Commish Bashes Cable

11/07/2008 7:00 PM Eastern

National Football League commission Roger Goodell is continuing to heap blame on Comcast and Time Warner Cable for the inability of some fans to see their home teams play when pro football games are televised by the league-owned NFL Network.

“These cable operators are denying their consumers fair access to this popular NFL programming or charging them exorbitant monthly fees to view the network,” Goodell said in an Oct. 31 letter to Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). The NFL released the letter last week.

When NFL Network airs a game, it is shown on free local TV stations in the markets of the teams on the field. The rest of the country needs access to NFL Network on a pay TV system. But many cable operators either do not carry the network or make it an optional purchase.

Last week, Specter and 12 other senators told Goodell in a sternly worded letter that the NFL’s definition of the local TV market was too narrow, claiming it excluded fans of a team with a regional following, such as the New England Patriots, from seeing the games on free TV.

In his response, Goodell suggested that cable carriage of the NFL Network on broadly distributed service tiers would help to address the lawmakers’ concerns.

“Our goal is to distribute NFL Network games to a broad national audience,” Goodell said. “However, that goal has been undercut by several of the largest cable operators that are discriminating against our network by either refusing to carry it or placing it on a much more costly tier than the sports networks that the cable operators themselves own.”

Comcast distributes the NFL Network on a sports tier under a contract now in litigation. Time Warner Cable does not carry the channel.

Among other things, the two cable companies insist that the NFL Network is demanding excessive compensation for a small slate of games. They also complain about the NFL’s decision to award exclusive rights to NFL Sunday Ticket, an out-of-market game package, to DirecTV.

The NFL Network kicks off its eight-game primetime run on Thursday, Nov. 6, when the Denver Broncos visit the Cleveland Browns at 8 p.m. ET.

The NFL yielded to political pressure last year when the NFL Network had exclusive rights to televise the Patriots’ game against the New York Giants. There was huge national interest in the game as the Pats were attempting to become the first team to go 16-0.

The league decided to air the game on NBC and CBS nationally, denying exclusivity to its own network that had been promised its pay-TV partners.

“Although we made the right decision for our fans, doing so resulted in costly litigation against us from Comcast and other cable and satellite operators that we still are defending in the courts,” Goodell said.

Goodell didn’t mention that the Comcast litigation was actually initiated by the NFL. Comcast added the portion related to the Pats-Giants game to a pre-existing law suit.

Specter’s letter to Goodell was signed by Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Others on the letter were Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Jack Reed (D-R.I), Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), Michael Enzi (R-Wyo.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Wayne Allard (R- Colo.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), John Thune (R-S.D.) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.).

The lawmakers’ letter suggested that problems between cable and the NFL might stem from the NFL’s exemption from antitrust law, which allows the league to negotiate television contracts for all of its teams. The exemption was granted in the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961.

In a recent tentative finding, the FCC’s Media Bureau chief Monica Desai concluded that Comcast discriminated against the NFL Network in terms of carriage. That staff decision has been referred to an administration law judge, who was given 60 days to rule. The ALJ’s ruling can be appealed to the five FCC members.

Last Thursday, Desai also ruled that Time Warner Cable discriminated against Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN) by refusing to provide carriage on an analog tier that most subscribers receive in North Carolina. MASN is a regional sports network that airs Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles baseball games. Time Warner Cable is appealing that ruling to the five FCC members.

In his letter, Goodell referred to both of Desai’s rulings.

“Would it not be appropriate for you and your fellow senators who signed the October 28 letter to address this blatant discrimination with those two cable operators so that your constituents and our fans would benefit? We are willing to meet with these cable operators at any time to reach a negotiated settlement on NFL Network distribution,” Goodell said.

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