NFL Network kicks off its eight-game primetime slate tonight with a significantly larger distribution lineup, but a number of key holdouts remain off its roster.
With Comcast migrating the service this summer from its sports tier to Digital Classic, its second-highest level of service, upgrades with other carriers and new agreements, NFL Network now counts 53 million homes as the Chicago Bears invade Candlestick Park to battle the San Franciso 49ers tonight at 8 p.m. (ET). That's up 26% from 42 million in March, as the NFL Network has also added the scoring service, NFL RedZone channel, to its playbook.
"This is a new high for the network," said NFL Network COO Kim Williams. "There has been expanded distribution with digital cable, satellite and our telco affiliates."
Still, the pro football league's in-house service has not been able to hit carriage paydirt with a number of major carriers, including No. 2 cable operator, Time Warner Cable, over pricing and positioning issues.
"Time Warner Cable is the only one of the top five distributors that does not carry NFL Network. We've put a deal on the table that most of the industry has been able to support," said Williams. "Along with our new NFL Red Zone Channel, and expanded VOD offerings, we're surprised and very disappointed that we have not been able to reach a deal."
Williams said there were significant negotiations with Time Warner Cable during the summer, and that while talks continue, there is nothing "serious right now" and that the operator is very likely going to remain on the sideline for another season of NFL Network's live-game coverage.
Similarly, while discussions continue with the MSOs, Charter, Cablevision and Suddenlink also don't figure to be on board either.
"Every distributor is different. For some it's pure economics, but there other considerations." Williams said, declining to elaborate.
For its part, Suddenlink, which for years had advocated for positioning NFL Network on a tier, said on its blog that it had verbally agreed to an NFL Network offer in late September. After starting to exchange "contract drafts" and preparing to add it to its lineup, Suddenlink said "NFL Network withdrew the offer we had accepted. A few weeks later, the NFL returned with a new proposal that included unacceptable costs and conditions."
The operator expressed frustration on the blog posting, but indicated it remains open to continued discussions and a new offer from the NFL Network, including the offer that we already accepted or any of the other offers we have previously made to them."
Elsewhere, NFL Network recently reached a multiyear contract extension with Armstrong that adds the service's primetime game schedule for the first time. NFL Network is available on Armstrong's Value Package, as well as its HD Advantage Package. Another recent addition, DTC TV, which serves subscribers in the middle Tennessee area, is positioning NFL Network on channel 40 and in HD on channel 340.
NFL Network also has scored a deal with BendBroadband in Oregon in time for Thursday night's Bears-49ers contest, as well as NFL RedZone, which provides highlights and live look-ins as teams cross the 20-yard-line, the so-called "red zone,"
Other NFL RedZone carriers, some of which are positioning it as a sports tier, using it as a driver to promote premium HD packages, or offering it on a subscription, a la carte basis include: Comcast, Dish Network, Verizon's FiOS, AT&T' U-verse, RCN Corp., Blue Ridge Communications, Service Electric, Buckeye Cable, Nex-Tech, Mid-Tel Cable and Dakota Central Telecom.
Asked about the uptake for NFL Red Zone Channel, Williams said that with distributors offering the product in different ways, the numbers are "tough" to determine through Nielsen metrics
Calling it a great complement to CBS and Fox's Sunday game coverage, RedZone, said Williams, is "keeping more people in front of their sets, when they might walk during breaks," or if their favorite team isn't performing well on any given Sunday. Williams said affiliates are happy with the look-in service's performance, and noted that there has also been "great buzz, acceptance from media, fans and bloggers."
Williams said that those distributors, like Verizon FiOS, that are offering it on an a la carte basis were preparing a mid-season discount to help drive a late-season rush for Red Zone during its rookie season.
Williams said that RedZone, alongside the network itself and expanded array of video-of-demand programming -- she pointed to the combine and NFL Draft fare as being particularly popular -- the NFL now has "a nice suite of products to offer."
On the VOD front, Avail-TVN earlier this week scored a contract extension with NFL Network, expanding the scope of the relationship to the entire industry, including delivery to an additional 17 million VOD-enabled homes, while incorporating advanced asset and metadata management services.
As for NFL Network itself, league officials said the service, as it approaches its first game telecast, has been enjoying an uptick in Sunday viewing. Through week 9 of the campaign, NFL Network scored a 15% increase in ratings and a 39% advance in households, compared to the same span in the 2008 season.
The gains are in keeping with the sport's audience amelioration for all of its carriers this season. An average of more than 17 million viewers has watched each NFL game on television this season to date -- the highest viewership at this point in a season in 20 years. Moreover, each of the networks televising NFL games has shown an increase in viewership against the 2008 season, with ESPN registering its strongest season since taking over the Monday Night Football franchise.
The NFL is also scoring online. Through this past Sunday Nov. 8, unique Visitors to NFL.com improved 16%, while video streams grew 32%, according to NFL officials.
Like a quarterback going through progressions, Williams, who said "our fans are really engaged on all platforms," ticked off a number of reasons why the NFL is enjoying a banner year: the "excitement of our sport"; its limited number of exposures; "some great games," Brett Favre; and "the economy, which is keeping more families at home."
Those factors and metrics have Williams feeling "pretty good about the advertising market" for NFL Network. League officials declined to specify its sell-through level for its eight game package, but senior vice president media sales and sponsorship Keith Turner recently said the service was pacing ahead of where it was at this point last season.
NFL Network for the first time, on the local level, has put 30-second tune-in spots into play, with affiliates offering marketers the chance to tag the units with "game sponsored locally" attachments. Comcast Spotlight, Cox Media and Insight are in the game.
"Thursday night football is one of our jewels," she said. "This is something we believe is really going to work for them."
Additionally, NFL Network is touting a sweepstakes offer that can net winners a trip to 2010 Pro Bowl.
ollowing the big market National Football Conference matchup with Bears-49ers tonight, NFL Network's slate also includes appearances by the two remaining unbeaten teams, the Indianapolis Colts (Dec. 17); and the New Orleans Saints, hosting America's Team, the Dallas Cowboys (Saturday Dec. 19); the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers (Dec. 10); and a Thanksgiving night game between the New York Giants-Denver Broncos fraught with playoff implications.
There's also a Christmas night contest with San Diego visiting Tennessee that on paper last spring was arguably the network's best game based on last season's performance, But now barring a real Music City Miracle by the disappointing Titans lacks its preseason luster.
"Every spring, you can say our schedule makers are either geniuses or idiots," she said. "I like our games."