NFL Network will kick off its third season of eight primetime games tonight with the Cleveland Browns hosting the Denver Broncos.
But the pro football league’s in-house service, which counts over 42 million subscribers, will showcase the debut of Brady Quinn as Cleveland’s starting quarterback with significant holes in its distribution roster.
Among the cable operators continuing to sit on the carriage sidelines: Time Warner Cable, Charter, Cablevision and Suddenlink.
Despite the holes, NFL Network COO Kim Williams is sanguine that some pacts can be closed this season.
“I’m a glass half-full girl,” said Williams. “I remain optimistic that those big cable operators will see value in the network and come to a negotiated deal.”
Williams, in an interview Thursday afternoon, said the service continues to reach out to the recalcitrant distributors, including Time Warner. “Are we close to getting a deal done with them? No,” she said, noting the network has pretty extensive conversations with Cablevision this past spring and summer. “Unfortunately, things didn’t pan out there,” she added.
The carriers have balked at NFL Network’s wont for digital-basic positioning, with a reported monthly license fee of around 75 cents.
Williams, while not discussing specific costs, said the network does call for “broad distribution," but has been flexible on pricing, based on penetration level. To that end, she cited Cox, which offers NFL Network, on its sports and information tier, one of the operator’s most widely penetrated packages.
She noted that with video-on-demand programming and other offerings, NFL Network can help operators “launch businesses, grow businesses with unique, exclusive content. There’s no shame in having the NFL help build your business. Look at Fox [Broadcasting which helped upgrade its affiliate lineup after acquiring the NFC package, beginning with the 1994 season] and DirecTV [with the out-of-market, pay-per-view Sunday Ticket]."
Williams said NFL Network continues to talk with Comcast in which it is engaged in litigation and a battle that landed at the Federal Communications Commission. The agency last month moved a discrimination complaint -- over the service being dropped to a sports tier, while Comcast offers Golf Channel and Versus, networks it owns, more widely -- to an administrative law judge.
However, Arthur Steinberg is not expected to rule within the 60 days the agency had suggested. Williams said she was hopeful that Steinberg would make a ruling sooner, but conceded his call probably wouldn’t come until after the NFL Network’s primetime season concludes with the last regular-season game at Texas Stadium, the Dec. 20 contest pitting the Dallas Cowboys against the Baltimore Ravens.
“The government works in mysterious, slow ways,” she said.
Although NFL Network’s base has declined -- the service lost about 4 million subs when Dish Network moved the network to its Top 200 tier -- Williams said its viewership has increased. Through the first nine weeks of the NFL season, the network's household audience has grown 20% on Sundays versus the comparable period last year, and 11% across all days since the start of the 2008 campaign on Sept. 1.
“When people see the network, they like it. Ratings are up,” said Williams. “We need to get more people available to see it.”
For those who can’t watch Browns-Broncos on TV tonight, there are other options.
Sprint will become the first wireless carrier to offer complete games, when it begins presenting full-length NFL Network contests via its exclusive NLF Mobile Live application.
Meanwhile, Verizon broadband customers with NFL Network Game Extra will be able to watch Denver-Cleveland knock helmets from multiple camera angles, similar to how users can view Sunday Night Football on nbc.com. They'll also have online access to up-to-the-minute game statistics, drive chart simulations, on-demand video highlights, live chats with other NFL Network Game Extra viewers and live audio feeds.
Those accessing NFL.com/live can get live game look-ins, NFL Network studio programming, in-game highlights, real-time stats and live blogging.