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January 30, 2006 Monday
By Michael Hiestand
So much for the speculation Comcast, the U.S.A'.s biggest cable operator, would turn its Outdoor Life Network into a powerhouse sports channel.
Leagues would have loved having OLN, which sparked speculation by buying TV rights for the ratings-challenged NHL last summer, help bid up the future value of everybody's TV rights.
But the NFL, in an uncharacteristically low-key announcement Saturday, after a report in The New York Times, kept its last available package of TV games for its 2-year-old NFL Network. That left Comcast without the prize that could have put OLN -- or some new Comcast sports channel -- in the big leagues.
The NFL keeps eight late-season prime-time games on a mix of Thursdays and Saturdays, starting next season in a six-year deal, on a channel that now reaches about 35 million cable TV households. But the channel probably is headed to virtually all households. ESPN's Sunday NFL games last season, in a pattern that's been generally true for years, were nine of the year's 10 highest-rated shows on cable TV.
As the sports world's Daddy Warbucks, the NFL left TV money on the table. Not to worry. The NFL Network now charges cable operators only about 20 cents a subscriber.
That seems certain to go up. ESPN, led by its NFL games, charges about $2.80 a subscriber.
The NFL Network's game coverage could be really creative because a league should get pretty good access to itself. And while all networks carrying NFL games lobby to get good game schedules, the NFL Network will be the only one that can use interoffice mail. And if other networks don't like what happens -- Fox's and CBS' Thanksgiving Day games will face a new competitor as the NFL Network gets a prime-time game -- then too bad.
Although the NFL Network's coverage probably won't be a model of objectivity, any boosterism it brings to games probably won't stand out. The other networks that next year will, collectively, pay the NFL $3.73 billion in annual TV rights fees aren't exactly defining journalistic independence.
For Comcast, cable TV rights for Major League Baseball, soccer's World Cup, NASCAR and PGA Tour have come and gone to other networks -- although the Comcast-owned Golf Channel picked up future golf action -- since OLN's deal for the NHL. And the NHL's national TV ratings are setting all-time lows. Yo Adrian, Comcast coulda been a contender.