TV SportsNFL Network Gains Ground in Cable Battle( Broadcasting & Cable)
By Richard Sandomir The New York Times
August 8, 2006
The NFL Network figured that it went big time earlier this year when it added eight regular-season games to its schedule, a sweet benefit of being owned by the league of all leagues. Carrying games made the network more expensive to carry, but this was the N.F.L.'s channel, and what cable or satellite operator would dare resist the allure of those games?
Time Warner, that's who. It has, for nearly three years, refused the NFL Network's demand that it be carried only as an expanded basic channel, where most channels reside, and insisted that it would place the network on its sports tier, along with channels like NBA TV, for $1.95 to $4.95 a month.
In that way, Time Warner said, only those who wanted it would pay for it, rather than forcing everyone, sports fan or not, to pay. It's an argument Cablevision pursued but lost during its epic battle with the YES Network.
For those who have not seen the NFL Network, some explanation is required. It is football, ad infinitum, a channel packed with studio programs and NFL Films productions; news conferences and replays of old games; preseason and N.F.L. Europe games; a few college bowl games; and the new Thursday and Saturday slate of games, which start Nov. 23. Bryant Gumbel will call all eight games, with Cris Collinsworth as the analyst on six, and Dick Vermeil on the others.
Sounds good, but not good enough for Time Warner, or other cable operators not yet among the channel's 41 million subscribers, 27 million of whom come from the satellite services DirecTV and Dish Network.
Time Warner, which has 14.5 million subscribers, contends that for the sake of eight games (pruned from CBS, Fox and ESPN's schedules) the NFL Network is gouging fans and that the value of those games is diminished by their availability to the participating teams' markets on local broadcast stations, a practice that has not reduced the value of N.F.L. games on ESPN.
Time Warner created a Web site, nflgetreal.com, to tell consumers why a sports tier is a better option than forcing all subscribers to pay 70 cents a month (up from about 20 cents).
Now, the NFL Network adds a mere eight games out of a 267-game schedule and asks for a 350 percent rate increase! the Web site said. That's like paying an unproven rookie an All-Pro salary. (Actually, it is 250 percent.) The price is too high, it adds, the value too low.
Last Tuesday, Time Warner demonstrated the ardor of its position. Having failed to reach a deal to carry the network, Time Warner removed it from the homes of 1.3 million customers recently added through the acquisition (with Comcast) of the bankrupt Adelphia Communications.
Time Warner quickly received 7,843 consumer complaints and 88 requests to be disconnected. The N.F.L. fielded another 22,000 complaints. Team owners must view the response as a dandy plebiscite on their channel.
Last Thursday, the media bureau of the Federal Communications Commission told Time Warner to restore what it had taken away.
Time Warner then asked the bureau to reconsider the ruling, but in its response yesterday, the F.C.C. division provided the NFL Network with everything it wanted. The bureau rejected all of the cable operator's arguments, including one that being forced to carry a network abridges its First Amendment rights, calling it force speech, plain and simple.
More to the point, the bureau chided Time Warner for stripping the NFL Network from the menus of those 1.3 million subscribers without providing 30-day notice of such a change as required by federal cable law.
If Time Warner believed that carrying the NFL Network or any other programming service for 30 days placed too onerous a burden on its First Amendment rights, then it should have sought a waiver of the commission's rules or provided subscribers with 30 days' notice, the bureau ruled.
The two sides retreated to their corners yesterday.
We commend the F.C.C.'s latest swift and thorough action, the network said in a statement, and it praised the agency's efforts to protect its fans.
Time Warner, also in a statement, said it still believed the F.C.C. had ordered a remedy that is in clear violation of the First Amendment.
The cable operator is contemplating its next move.http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/08/sp...gewanted=print