Rocky's Football Corner #11

by Rick Rockwell

I learned at least one lesson during the year I spent on Capitol Hill: don’t take away people’s television. Folks get mad when that happens. Politicians run for cover when their constituents start making angry calls about problems with television. Everyone just wants the problem fixed. Quickly.

Time Warner and Disney found this out in 2000 when some of Time Warner’s cable systems unplugged ABC programming for the better part of two days while the two media giants played hardball negotiating compensation contracts. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Congress threatened to intervene and Time Warner restored ABC’s programming.

So what happens if you take away televised football games?

Likely, the same equation will yield the same results, but the new NFL Network and cable companies haven’t learned that lesson. At least, not yet.

Politicians in Washington don’t seem interested in letting a dispute between the National Football League (NFL), its cable channel and some of the biggest cable operators come to a head without intervening. But they may have waited a bit too long to get involved.

Next week, the NFL Network will cablecast its first football game: Denver vs. Kansas City. If you are in Denver, or Kansas City, you will be able to see the game, one way or another on the NFL Network or regular over-the-air broadcast television. But viewers outside of these markets who are served by Time Warner Cable, or Cablevision or Charter Cable won’t be able to see the game. That’s because those cable systems have not come to an agreement with the NFL on how the league’s channel should be carried and how much the league should get in compensation.

That leaves about 24 million potential viewers in the lurch on Thanksgiving night.

When Time Warner unplugged ABC on some of its systems in 2000, that affected about four million viewers. The complaints rained down on Washington then. Can you imagine the calls this time?

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) can. As chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Specter called the NFL on the carpet this week in front of his committee and wanted to know why the league’s demands of cable operators didn’t violate anti-trust law. With no competing pro league, anti-trust law is Congress’ big stick against pro football.

What the league wants is for cable systems to offer its channel as part of basic cable service and not to charge extra for it. The cable operators say the league wants too much for its channel and they need to put the channel on special sports tiers where they can charge additional fees to offset costs.

Specter has intervened in this fight because one of his biggest constituents, Comcast (the nation’s biggest cable operator) of Philadelphia is embroiled in a suit with the NFL, as it attempts to move the NFL Network to premium channels. So Specter’s motives are to protect a powerful constituent, not necessarily to advocate solely for the 24 million viewers who are disenfranchised by the business disputes of these huge businesses.

In the past, the FCC has said viewers should not be held hostage while these negotiations are proceeding. But that is just what is about to happen. The NFL has Thursday night games scheduled on its cable channel beginning on Thanksgiving and for the rest of the season. Seemingly, only government pressure will get the league and the cable companies to relent and find a solution for the consumer.

This is what happens when powerful monopolies collide and no one is there to protect the consumer, the real victim of the collateral damage left by these big business wars. Specter is promising more hearings next month on this topic and to look into vertical integration in cable. And on these important issues, where is the pro-business Senate Commerce Committee -- the committee that often oversees television and cable regulation? Nowhere for the moment.

One can only hope that the sheer volume of consumer complaints on this issue will break this logjam. But for now, it doesn’t look promising. Once again the businesses that control the media and sports are willing to make the fans the losers.

(Rick Rockwell served as an advisor on telecommunications issues to Sen. Maria Cantwell in 2003 and 2004. Cantwell is a Democrat from Washington State who is a member of the Senate Commerce Committee.)

(The photo of Sen. Arlen Specter is in the public domain via the U.S. Government.)

(See below for a segment of the Senate Judiciary hearing in question.)

(For an update on this story please see: "Rocky's Football Corner #12.")

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tazdog said...

I never had nfl network when I was on comcast but always wondered what it would be like. Then Time Warner came into the market and bought out Comcast in our area and just as you said, they dropped the nfl network. They there service was crappy and now I'm happy to say I went satellite and have NFL network and never been happier. I heard a lot of people in this area dropped time warner for that reason...


Rick Rockwell said...

Like many tazdog... you have discovered satellite is the way to go... but keep your voice down... the cable folks are threatening lawsuits against the NFL for promoting that option.

>>>More importantly... an update for those looking for 2007 information. Please check out the latest in ”Rocky’s Football Corner #33 and ”Rocky’s Football Corner #35.

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