NFL blitzes state capitols in fight with cable

By: - December 20, 2007 12:00 am

Some of the pro football fans who flocked to sports bars on a recent Thursday night to see a highly anticipated showdown between the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys weren’t there for big-screen TVs and alcoholic beverages. They were just looking for a place to see the game.

That’s because, for most of the country, it wasn’t on cable. The game was carried by NFL Network , a 4-year-old programming outlet for the National Football League that many cable companies, including Comcast and Time Warner Cable , refuse to carry on basic cable.

Now the NFL wants states to end the standoff.

The league is starting its offensive drive in Texas and Wisconsin, home states of the Cowboys and Packers. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell addressed Texas lawmakers in Austin last week and NFL officials talk to Wisconsin legislators in Madison on Thursday (Dec. 20).

An NFL Network spokesman said the appearances are just the beginning of the league’s state-level push.

“We’re looking at all 50 (states). We’re going to be active… in every state that cable operates in or is doing something that is anti-consumer,” spokesman Seth Palansky said. The NFL might even get involved in cable companies’ franchise renewal applications, Palansky said.

Kirsten Voinis, a spokeswoman for the Texas Cable Association , said the conflict is a business dispute that state lawmakers shouldn’t get involved in. Acting on the NFL’s wishes would be like requiring grocery stores to carry certain products on their shelves, she said.

“We contend that, because the NFL Network isn’t getting its way at the negotiating table, this is a Hail Mary pass they’re taking to lawmakers,” she said.

The cable industry says carriers aren’t picking up the NFL Network because it’s too expensive. Industry officials say the league wants cable companies to pay 80 cents a month for every subscriber, making it the fifth most expensive cable channel out of 159 evaluated by SNL Kagan, a research firm.

If any regulatory action is going to take place, it should be the Federal Communications Commission that handles the issue – not the states, Voinis said.

Many cable companies want to offer the NFL Network as part of a premium sports package. The league says that’s unfair, because cable operators don’t charge extra for their own sports-themed networks, such as the Golf Channel.

“They are doing that not on the basis of what the consumer wants. They’re doing it on the basis of what they own,” Goodell told Texas lawmakers on Dec. 10.

The NFL Network is broadcasting eight games this season. One of them is a potentially historic game between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants on Dec 29. If the Patriots win, they could become the first team to go undefeated since 1972, but fans in much of the nation outside of Boston and New York may be unable to watch it.

A similar dust-up between cable companies and collegiate football is under way in the Midwest where fans can’t watch many Big Ten games because the network that carries them isn’t offered by many cable carriers.

In four of the eight states with Big Ten schools – Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin – state legislators have introduced measures to force the networks and cable providers to negotiate with mandatory arbitration. That’s the solution the NFL is touting.

Ohio state Rep. Louis Blessing, a Republican who is sponsoring an NFL-backed arbitration measure, said he’s interested in the issue because its consequences go beyond sports.

If a cable carrier can refuse to negotiate with a content provider, the carrier could dictate what types of news programs its viewers see, too. “It’s almost like a state-owned newspaper or TV station,” he said.

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