News

NFL's Perfect Storm

12/28/2007 7:00 PM Eastern

After all the hoopla,
bickering and politicking, the contest that should have been NFL Network's showcase for the 2007 season — the 15-0 New England Patriots' pursuit of regular-season perfection against the New York Giants — wound up playing to a wide audience on Saturday night.

The entire U.S. TV universe, in fact.

Bowing to pressure from Washington, and not wanting to deny fans a chance to see the Patriots' quest to become only the second National Football League team to finish a campaign undefeated, the NFL announced on Dec. 26 that CBS and NBC would join the NFL Network in the first three-network simulcast of an NFL game.

Otherwise, this marquee matchup would have only been available to the NFL Network's 43 million residential customers and the commercial establishments that subscribe to the service.

HOLES IN THE LINE

Although the NFL Network counts 240 affiliates, including DirecTV, Dish Network and Verizon Communications' FiOS TV, the channel has been unable to crack the distribution lineups of Time Warner Cable, Charter Communications, Cablevision Systems and Suddenlink Communications, among others.

Those cablers feel the network's primary calling card of eight primetime regular-season games doesn't warrant a monthly subscriber license fee of 70 cents and digital-basic positioning. They maintain the service belongs on a sports tier — which is where Comcast migrated the network, following a favorable court ruling last May.

“We have taken this extraordinary step because it is in the best interest of our fans,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in the Dec. 26 announcement. “What we have seen for the past year is a very strong consumer demand for NFL Network. We appreciate CBS and NBC delivering the NFL Network telecast on Saturday night to the broad audience that deserves to see this potentially historic game. Our commitment to the NFL Network is stronger than ever.”

The league had been under pressure to make the game more widely available from such politicians as Sens. John Kerry (D.-Mass), Patrick Leahy (D.-Vt.) and Arlen Specter (R.-Penn.). Twenty-one members of Congress recently wrote to FCC chairman Kevin Martin about finding mechanisms to end such carriage disputes.

Indeed, compulsory arbitration for carriage of the NFL Network and Hallmark Channel, was slated to be part of the FCC's public hearing on Nov. 27, before Martin dropped the proposed rules.

NFL Network spokesman Seth Palansky, who said he thought the service had earned “some good will” by widening distribution for Pats-Giants while “big cable had not,” noted the channel's carriage quest would be the subject of an arbitration hearing in Washington next month. However, he declined to disclose the forum or a date.

On Dec. 20, Goodell had fired off a letter to Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt seeking “baseball-style” arbitration — with a third party deciding between the two parties' proposals. Britt declined the invitation, noting that the operator had successfully reached “agreements with hundreds of programming networks without the use of arbitration.” Palansky emphasized that the simulcast of the game is “absolutely not in our best interests” because the NFL Network would have preferred to have struck more carriage accords.

“Unlike cable, which didn't do it for their customers, we put our fans first, making this historical game available on three national networks,” Palansky said.

That message was driven home in Friday newspaper ads, under the headline: “NFL Network — Putting Fans First.” Copy noted, “A few Big Cable companies like Time Warner and Comcast put their profits ahead of their viewers … denying easy access to popular programming like NFL Network. The system is broken. Elected officials and regulators must fix it and make it better for consumers.”

CBS and NBC will pick up the NFL Network's feed of the game, including its announcers and halftime show.

ADVERTISERS GAIN

NFL Network advertisers should also be happy with the move. Palansky said the channel had guaranteed the game would be in front of 50 million households — NFL Network's 43 million homes, plus local station affiliates in New York, Boston and Manchester, N.H. Those sponsors, some of which reportedly paid up to $200,000 per unit, will in effect be “bonused” by the added distribution.

NFL officials at presstime said they were unaware if any NFL Network affiliates wanted a rebate in light of the game being made available to a wider audience. The contest was expected to top the network's prior best telecast: 10.1 million viewers for the Nov. 29 game between the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers.

Calls and e-mails to several operators about the matter did not yield any responses by presstime.

Steve Donohue and Ted Hearn contributed to this story.

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