Gentle prod

NFL on TV

December 28, 2007|By BILL ORDINE

I hope somebody is being groomed in Congress to take the place of U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter whenever he stops serving. For years, Specter, now 77, has been a watchdog on behalf of sports fans' interests, especially when it comes to the NFL.

Most recently, Specter and fellow senator Patrick Leahy (Specter is a Republican from Pennsylvania and Leahy is a Democrat from Vermont, so there's nothing partisan here) wrote to the NFL encouraging the league to make tomorrow night's historic Patriots-Giants game available on TV for all viewers.

Until just a couple of days ago, the game was limited to an NFL Network broadcast. Now, it'll be simulcast on CBS and NBC as well.

The hammer in the Leahy-Specter note was a pointed reminder that the NFL enjoys an exemption from antitrust laws (one that allows the league to negotiate its broadcast rights as a single organization rather than as individual teams).

This is what the senators, both members of the Judiciary Committee, had to say in their Dec. 19 letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell regarding those antitrust exemptions:

"These exemptions may have made sense at one time, when leagues were far less commercialized and were committed to making their television rights available for free, over-the-air broadcast. Now that the NFL is adopting strategies to limit distribution of game programming to their own networks, Congress may need to re-examine the need and desirability of their continued exemption from the nation's antitrust laws."

Like magic, now everyone gets to see the Patriots-Giants game, whether you have some special programming subscription for your fancy 48-inch plasma screen or you're still fiddling with rabbit ears on that old DuMont.

If you've been following this issue, you know that the big problem here is a war between the NFL and Big Cable over how much the league wants to be paid per subscriber and whether cable companies will carry the NFL Network and if so, on what subscription tier.

Limited access to the NFL Network through large cable outlets has generated much debate since the league network began broadcasting some games itself. You'll recall that last month, limited TV access to the much-anticipated Dallas-Green Bay game on a Thursday night had fans riled.

So with the NFL and the cable guys looking out for their own interests, it's up to Congress to look out for fans. So again, here's hoping there are some backups ready in Washington for guys like Specter and Leahy.

bill.ordine@baltsun.com

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