Online Audible - Multichannel

Online Audible

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So, the NFL Network’s first big game of the season is upon us. Tonight, Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers engage Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys.

With both teams at 10-1, immediate NFC supremacy and bragging rights are on the line. In the longer view, home field, en route to Super Bowl XLII, is at stake.

Yet, cable operators didn’t blink before the magnitude of the matchup. Despite ads, public relations efforts, press junkets by Cowboys owner and NFL Network committee chairman Jerry Jones, a media conference call with commissioner Roger Goodell, legislative attempts in certain states and a push for compulsory arbitration with the FCC, the league’s in-house service still counts just 35 million subscribers.

Although it has pacts with DirecTV, Dish, Cox, Verizon and 240 smaller cable operators, the service, seeking a monthly subscriber fee of 70 cents and digital-basic positioning, remains outside the distribution huddle with Time Warner Cable, Charter (whose boss, billionaire Paul Allen, owns the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks franchise), Cablevision and Suddenlink, among other key carriers. Moreover, Comcast, via a favorable court ruling in May, pushed the service to a sports tier, resulting in the sack of some 8 million NFL Network subs in the process, according to Goodell’s scorecard.

So, today the NFL called an online audible. It said it will provide disenfranchised cable fans with a peek into Texas Stadium, starting at 8 p.m., via Live: Thursday and Saturday Night Football presented by Sprint.

Users, one and all, will be able to catch live look-ins to the action at 15 and 45 minutes past the hour and on select trips into the red zone tonight and during the six remaining primetime games on the NFL Network schedule. The site will also serve as a showcase for other NFL Network fare, plus provide a sense for the contest at hand, via highlights and commentary. The game plan also calls for such interactive elements as blogs, user questions, real-time statistical updates, and a “call the play” feature.

It’s a smart call by the league and the channel, a way to give fans some access to the game, perhaps whet their appetite for the network and maybe even prompt a new round of complaints to operators. And what if the Live can’t handle the traffic? That’s surely a sign of demand, right?

Or maybe it’s not such a prudent play. What kind of ill will might be engendered if the site crashes? Far worse, though, would be a situation where fans sate their NFL and NFL Network jones by merely keeping tabs of the action via the computer.

It will be interesting to see how things unfold—and I do plan to check out Live in the weeks ahead.

Tonight, though, this Cablevision subscriber will head to his preferred Sunday Ticket tavern and watch America’s Team and the Pack go it at on NFL Network via DirecTV.