NFL Network a no-show

League, cable providers clash over availability

November 22, 2007|By Ray Frager | Ray Frager,SUN REPORTER

Tonight, by about the time the leftovers have been bagged and many folks have settled back into a turkey-induced mellowness, the last game in the NFL's Thanksgiving triple-header will kick off.

But most of you likely won't have access to the 8:15 p.m. game between the Indianapolis Colts and Atlanta Falcons. It's being carried by the NFL Network, the league-owned channel that is starting its second season with an eight-game package of Thursday and Saturday night regular-season telecasts.

Comcast, the dominant cable carrier in the Baltimore market, offers the NFL Network to its customers, but only as part of the Sports Entertainment Package, available for an extra fee to digital subscribers. (That fee is at a promotional rate of $1.99 a month.)

Perhaps no one will get too worked up about missing a third game tonight, especially without a particularly compelling matchup. However, next week's Thursday night game is between two of the NFC's Super Bowl contenders, the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys. And the last NFL Network game, on Saturday, Dec. 29, features the New England Patriots vs. the New York Giants, with New England possibly trying to complete an undefeated regular season.

The NFL is none too happy with the current arrangement, arguing that the NFL Network deserves to be a digital basic channel. Comcast and other cable companies don't agree, balking at putting the NFL Network on a basic tier of service when the cable providers have to pay the NFL 70 cents per subscriber a month - a hefty fee that would result in raised rates for customers who apparently aren't clamoring for the channel, according to the cable companies.

David Cohen, Comcast executive vice president, said in a statement: "Comcast offers the NFL Network to all of its interested customers today. ... 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."

The NFL said in a statement posted on one of its Web sites: "Cable rates have increased by 41 percent in the last few years, and cable companies still aren't satisfied. They're trying to cash in on the NFL's popularity by charging football fans an additional fee to watch their favorite teams in action."

This matter already has gone to court, with the latest twist coming Tuesday. Comcast sent a cease-and-desist letter to the NFL, telling it to stop encouraging customers to leave Comcast for other companies - such as satellite providers - that carry the NFL Network on a basic tier.

The league has set up a Web site, iwantnflnetwork.com, to make its case and facilitate customer switching. For example, if you type in a ZIP code from Baltimore County, you get this message: "NFL Network is carried by your area's cable provider, Comcast. Unfortunately, Comcast is overcharging you to watch football 24:7 on NFL Network. Other video providers include NFL Network in their basic package for no additional cost. Make the switch now to AT&T U-Verse, DirecTV, DISH Network or Verizon."

But if you're a Comcast digital customer and woke up today and decided you just had to see Peyton Manning vs. Joey Harrington as described by Bryant Gumbel, you could call Comcast and be watching the Colts and Falcons tee it up tonight. Under a promotional deal, the Sports Entertainment Package is $1.99 a month for six months, at which time you could cancel or keep the NFL Network and other sports channels for a higher rate, currently $4.99.

(If you're not already a digital customer, you couldn't start receiving the NFL Network until you got a digital box and upgraded your service.)

As part of this hissing match between cable companies and the NFL, the league passes along news stories about drops in cable subscriptions and ties the decrease to the limited or lack of availability of the NFL Network. Cable cites economic factors for the drop, saying the NFL Network has nothing to do with it.

The NFL Network has approximately 43.5 million subscribers nationwide, a network spokesman said yesterday. Of that total, about 31 million receive the channel via satellite or phone providers. That means the NFL Network reaches 15 percent of the nation's cable TV homes.

ray.frager@baltsun.com

The New York Times and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

Football feast

You can watch football on television today from 10 a.m. to about 11:30 p.m. A look at some of today's games:

Calvert Hall vs. Loyola, 10 a.m., Ch. 2: Look at it this way: How often can you say there is a game scheduled for M&T Bank Stadium where at least half of the crowd is guaranteed to go home happy?

Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions, 12:30 p.m., chs. 45, 5: The dangerous thing about this game? Uncle Sid will see Brett Favre playing and figure old guys can still play football, thus ruining your annual backyard game of touch.

New York Jets at Dallas Cowboys, 4 p.m., chs. 13, 9: Special halftime show will feature musical performances by every singer linked romantically to Tony Romo (right).

Southern California at Arizona State, 8 p.m., ESPN: Major Rose Bowl ramifications. Which means you should watch with Granddaddy.

Indianapolis Colts at Atlanta Falcons, 8:15 p.m., NFL Network: You don't have the NFL Network? Guess you'll have to hear about it from your cousin who sells satellite dishes.

RAY FRAGER

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