NFL may resolve cable battle

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 23, 2008

Associated Press
Is the NFL ready to hand off a controversial package of eight late-season games to ESPN?
The league and network on Friday declined to comment on a Wall Street Journal report that the NFL is talking to Walt Disney Co.’s sports media juggernaut about a possible partnership ó one that might solve its increasingly bitter carriage battle with big cable operators, including Comcast and Time Warner.
The league sparked a bitter fan protest late last year by threatening to restrict the broadcast of the then-undefeated New England Patriots’ Dec. 29 game against the New York Giants to its wholly owned NFL Network. The channel is available in just 40 million homes nationwide. ESPN, in contrast, is seen in 96 million homes.
The NFL unexpectedly reversed field and allowed NBC and CBS to also broadcast the game, which the Patriots won. Earlier in the season, the dispute had restricted viewership of a game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers to those whose cable television systems carried the NFL Network.
The NFL and ESPN on Friday declined to confirm or deny that talks are underway.
“We have a long term and extensive relationship with the NFL,” said ESPN spokesman Chris LaPlaca. “To that end we are always in discussions with them about mutual projects.”
NFL Senior Vice President Joe Brown said that “we speak to our TV partners all the time about all sorts of issues.”
But an executive with another television network that pays a premium for the right to broadcast NFL games questioned whether that’s the case.
“If these talks are going on, I’m surprised that the NFL would limit discussion to just one of their network partners,” said the executive, who is not authorized to discuss the network’s NFL dealings. “It’s kind of mind-boggling if they are having these discussions.”
The increasingly nasty dispute that has placed fans and cable television customers in the middle has its roots in a decision two seasons ago by NFL owners to forfeit an estimated $400 million in TV rights fees and keep an eight-game package for the NFL Network.
The NFL has incorporated the night games into a high-powered consumer marketing and statehouse lobbying campaign that is designed to pressure Comcast, Time Warner and other cable companies into making room for NFL Network in their widely available programming packages.
Big cable operators generally have refused, on the grounds that, other than the occasional big games, the NFL Network’s fare isn’t worth what the league wants to charge.