FCC Showdown For NFL, Critics

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Executives on either side of the NFL Network debate will have their game faces ready on Nov. 27.

That’s when the Federal Communications Commission could vote on the plan, backed by agency commissioner Kevin Martin, to allow the NFL Network to invoke compulsory arbitration that could result in the programmer reaching far more cable subscribers and receiving far higher license fees than it could from private talks with the cable operators.

In endorsing rules that would in effect supply the NFL Network with some regulatory Gatorade, Martin is reportedly in favor of baseball-style arbitration, which means the arbitrator would pick between the final and best offers tendered by both sides.

U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), for one, says the NFL Network doesn’t need any help from the FCC.

“The only possible outcome would be higher costs to consumers,” Specter said in a letter last week to Martin. “The National Football League, owner of the NFL Network, wields tremendous power. Indeed, I am hard-pressed to think of a commercial enterprise that similarly dominates the market that it serves; and its power continues to grow,” Specter said.

Specter is a resident of Philadelphia, home to both Comcast and the NFL’s Eagles franchise.

“The proposition that an enterprise with such vast market power needs the government to intervene on its behalf in business negotiations is simply untenable,” Specter said.

He also suggested that Martin’s intervention on behalf of the NFL Network would be inconsistent with Martin’s ongoing concerns about the upward spiral of cable rates.

“Your approach simply is not a recipe for lower cable prices or better programming or access,” Specter said. “I hope you agree that the marketplace is the better venue for resolving these disputes.”

Meanwhile, two North Carolina Democratic legislators are backing the network’s efforts to get cable companies in the region back to the negotiating table.

Football 24.7 Carolina, which represents fans in North and South Carolina and is backed by the network, said that state Sen. David Hoyle (D-Gastonia) and Rep. Drew Saunders (D-Huntersville) support negotiating a carriage deal before late-season games are televised on NFL Network.

NFL Network is turning to legislatures in several states in hopes of resolving the carriage impasse with outside pressure for arbitration.

Football 24.7 Carolina also said Hoyle and Saunders support any action by the FCC to establish a system of arbitration between independent programmers and cable operators. For North Carolina, the pair said they might consider holding hearings before the Utility Review Study Committee to hear from both sides in the carriage dispute.

In Indiana, Rep. Scott Reske (D-Pendleton) said Nov. 19 he would offer legislation during the coming session to resolve carriage disputes involving the NFL Network and the Big Ten Network. Reske recently sent a letter to the FCC asking the panel to examine whether there are anti-competitive forces harming consumers’ access to programming.