NFL Network: No Replacement for Additional Subs


Largely lost amidst the hubbub, outrage and parsimony of the replacement referee debacle that besmirched pro football in recent days was another significant piece of NFL business news.

Just short of nine years since its kickoff and now in its seventh season of presenting primetime games, NFL Network finally inked a carriage contract with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks on Sept. 21.

Financial terms were not disclosed but Time Warner Cable and Bright House -- TWC negotiates its programming contracts -- is offering NFL Network on their Digital Basic and Sports Pass tiers, while NFL RedZone is available to Sports Pass customers.

Following Cablevision’s similar contract with the league last month, NFL Network has at long last completed its distribution roster with the nation’s leading providers.

Last weekend, TWC impressively managed to get RedZone in place on upward of 95% of its systems in time for the opening of the channel’s Sunday afternoon window. By the time the Cleveland Browns visit the Baltimore Ravens in the Art Modell Bowl tonight on Thursday Night Football, all of the MSO’s systems will offer NFL Network.

That means some 9.5 million TWC Digital Basic subscribers can check out the action from M&T Stadium. Coupled with the Bright House and Cablevision customers, NFL Network has upped its subscriber count from around 57 million when it began televising its then-eight-game slate last November to more than 70 million for its expanded 13-game schedule during the 2012 campaign.

In announcing the contract, TWC executive vice president and chief video and content officer Melinda Witmer talked up the additional games and RedZone’s appeal.

What wasn't said: Signing the NFL deal was probably a prudent perceptional play as TWC tries to negotiate carriage for its pair of regional sports networks centering around the Los Angeles Lakers that tip off on Oct. 1. 

Whatever the reason, NFL Network now has a lot more potential viewers for tonight’s expected clunker in Baltimore -- even if the potential car wreck factor of another night of faux officiating has been replaced by the return of the seven-man crew headed by referee Gene Steratore, a 10-year NFL veteran.

In addition to Cleveland, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks are major cable providers in the home markets for 11 other NFL squads:  Buffalo, Carolina, Cincinnati, Dallas, Green Bay, Indianapolis, Kansas City, New York Giants, New York Jets, San Diego and Tampa Bay.

As such, plenty more NFL fans figure to be tuning in the TNF contests over the course of this season and beyond -- a Nielsen measuring stick of sorts if the league pushes to add a full complement of games on Thursday that will raise the value/license fee/ad rates of the service or set the stage for it to peddle a primetime package(s) to other networks.

Through two games, NFL Network has averaged a 5.0 national rating and 7.8 million viewers, putting it on pace for its highest-rated and most-watched season to date.

There is a downside to all this. Hell didn’t freeze over, but The Eagles toured. Cable companies still don’t have the Sunday Ticket, but Cablevision is in the NFL Network game -- a previous carriage requisite as declared by CEO James Dolan.

As for TWC, it had always quieted the drum beating against it by the league. The loudest pounding came when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s proposed that the MSO agree to third-party arbitration for carriage terms ahead of NFL Network’s Dec. 29, 2007 presentation of New England Patriots’ quest for unbeaten regular-season history against the New York Giants.

TWC summarily drop-kicked the request and the NFL instead opted to also air the game on CBS and NBC, marking the league’s first simulcast since Super Bowl I and its only triple-cast.  

The new carriage contract will also silence a certain rite of summer. Alongside two-a-days (are those even legal under the new CBA?), the NFL commissioner would show up at a training camp facility for one of the clubs in a TWC market and bemoan to the local press that the MSO just hadn’t seen the (license fee) light like the rest of the industry.

Thus the question: What’s going to replace those stories about NFL Network in August going forward?