Suffering unjust desserts

Not all can feast on TV package

November 22, 2006|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN REPORTER

The last bits of turkey have been gnawed off the bone, only crumbs remain of the pumpkin pie and in living rooms far and wide, Americans amble to their couches to stare at some football.

That is Thanksgiving as we know it.

But this year, the NFL will throw a twist into that time-honored formula by offering the Denver Broncos vs. the Kansas City Chiefs on its own cable network. Though that won't affect digital and satellite customers in the Baltimore area, it could prove a nasty surprise for the thousands who buy only Comcast's analog cable package.

Those subscribers don't receive the NFL Network, and, for them, Thanksgiving might be a night without football. The traditional Detroit Lions game at 12:30 p.m. and Dallas Cowboys game at 4:15 p.m. will be broadcast on CBS and Fox, respectively.

Comcast uses the NFL Network to attract customers to its premium digital package. Of the company's 24 million subscribers, about 7 million already buy that programming, which costs $14.95 more a month than Comcast's analog package. Football lovers who want the NFL Network but not the full digital package can buy a digital collection of sports channels for $5 a month.

Given those options, Comcast officials say they're striking a balance between giving customers what they want and not imposing extra channels and costs on those who don't want them. But it means the majority of Comcast households won't have access to the game tomorrow night.

NFL Network chief Steve Bornstein said he's not alarmed that his product is unavailable to so many households.

"We have to date just over 40 million homes that will be receiving the games as of next week, which is in my opinion a very good place to be," Bornstein said in a recent conference call with reporters. "We think that we'll grow from there. We think that this will, in your case, Comcast, who has us on a very highly penetrated digital tier, this will be a product that will be very beneficial for them to get more upgrades to digital television and digital programming, which is ultimately in everyone's best interests. So we are pretty pleased where we are on our distribution front."

The Thanksgiving game is the first of eight the NFL Network will offer this year. The network has broadcast preseason games before, but the league decided to add regular-season games this year as part of its push to offer more content without using middle men such as networks and newspapers.

Baltimore-area cable customers are hardly in the worst position. Subscribers to large cable distributors, such as Time Warner, Cablevision and Charter, don't receive the NFL Network at all. Those companies have decided against paying the 70-cent-per-subscriber surcharge the NFL is asking (up from 20 cents since the network added games to its coverage). Time Warner even created a Web site called nflgetreal.com to explain its position.

NFL officials aren't opposed to Comcast's basic strategy of using the NFL to attract customers to its digital package. But the NFL Network would prefer Comcast not offer it only as a part of premium sports packages (along with NBATV and several Fox Sports channels). The NFL took a legal action last month to prevent Comcast from using that strategy.

Comcast officials say they don't want to charge uninterested analog customers for NFL games.

"The NFL is currently embroiled in a public battle with the cable industry and other distributors in which the NFL is trying to force cable companies to charge many consumers for programming they don't want," said Comcast executive vice president David Cohen. "Sports programming fees are out of control in general, and the NFL programming is very expensive. The best and fairest solution for our customers, particularly for those who are not NFL fans, is to make this programming available on a sports tier. Diehard NFL fans will have the opportunity to see this limited package of eight out-of-market games, while the rest of our customers will not be forced to pay year-round for expensive programming they have no interest in receiving."

It's not clear whether fans will be outraged when they can't watch football tomorrow night.

People posting messages on Profootball24x7.com, a Ravens-related fan site, didn't seem angry when informed of the situation. A few bemoaned Comcast's service and said they've switched to satellite because of such frustrations. But more wondered why any football nut would go without digital cable or satellite in the first place. Others said a little perspective was in order (especially given that Ravens games won't be affected).

"Hey, I love football, but enough is enough," diehard Ravens fan Ted Siomporas said. "Maybe if that were the only Thanksgiving game, it would seem like a big deal. But it's a surplus and it's not as if people can't subscribe to digital. Watching football is not an entitlement."

Network officials suspect many aren't yet aware of the problem.

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