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NFL-Comcast spat heats up

Wed, 11/21/2007 - 7:50am
Brian Santo

The argument between the National Football League (NFL) and Comcast escalated recently, with the NFL urging those of its fans who subscribe to Comcast to switch to another provider, with Comcast sending a cease-and-desist demand to the NFL, and with the NFL threatening to go to Congress and ask the government to referee the spat.

Let’s back up to the beginning: The NFL formed a premium cable channel called the NFL Network and decided it would show a number of games exclusively on the channel. It set the price at 70 cents per subscriber, which is far, far higher than most channels, though also far less than a select few – in the context of sports, the notable example is ESPN, which is getting well over $2.50 a sub. The NFL also demanded that MSOs include the NFL Network in their basic tiers.

For the privilege of presenting a handful of games, few cable operators wanted to pay the price, raise rates for everyone (in many cases, raise rates even more) and accede to kicking some other channel out of their basic tier, where channel space continues to be precious.

Comcast elected to shift the NFL Network to a digital tier, and the NFL’s response was to take umbrage and pressure Comcast by encouraging NFL fans to complain to Comcast and switch (to a DBS provider) if Comcast refused to move the NFL Network to the basic tier.

Comcast’s cease-and-desist may have had some effect: As of today, the NFL’s Web site directs customers who want the NFL Network to call DirecTV or EchoStar’s Dish Network, pointedly omitting Comcast but not actively urging fans to abandon Comcast, either.

On the other hand, the availability locator on NFL.com, where customers can punch in their zip codes and be told who in their area offers the NFL Network, still points to Comcast.

The NFL is in the weaker position in the short term, because if it wants those games to be seen by the largest possible pool of fans (and it does, at the risk of low ratings and low ad revenue), it has one month to come to some sort of agreement with Comcast. In the long term, politicians can’t do anything more popular than doing whatever necessary – sensible or not – to ensure their constituents get to watch their favorite teams, which works in the NFL’s favor. At this point, it’s all an issue of resolve.

Comcast EVP David L. Cohen offered the following statement: “Comcast offers the NFL Network to all of its interested customers today, and they can watch every NFL game the league makes available on cable television. The fact is that the vast majority of our customers have elected not to receive NFL Network.

Under our agreement with the NFL, which the league negotiated and signed, we offer the NFL Network as part of our Sports Entertainment Package. This is the best and fairest way to provide the NFL's expensive programming to customers, because viewers who want to watch the channel will be able to see it, while others who prefer not to receive it will not be forced to pay.”

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