Cable stuffing the NFL this Thanksgiving
The NFL Network, which will show its first live football game Thursday night, isn't available even in most homes with cable.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Thanksgiving, a day given to excess, will include a third helping of pro football this year -- but only for a fraction of U.S. homes.
When the NFL Network, owned by the National Football League,shows its first live regular season game Thursday evening with the Denver Broncos facing off against the Kansas City Chiefs, only about 13 million of 70 million cable households will be able to see the game.
Such a diet seems downright un-American for the holiday second only to Super Bowl Sunday in its attention to the National Football League.
The limited distribution of the game was even examined at a recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. Fortunately for the future of democracy, CBS and Fox will each air a game earlier in the day, as will local broadcast affiliates in Denver and Kansas City.
The two leading satellite television firms have reached a deal to carry the NFL Network. But several of the largest cable operators, including No. 2 Time Warner Cable, No. 4 Charter Communications (Charts) and Cablevision (Charts), have not signed deals to carry the network. Time Warner Cable and CNNMoney.com are both units of Time Warner (Charts).
And some of the large cable operators that are offering the network, including No. 1 Comcast (Charts) and No. 3 Cox, are making it available only to customers who have more expensive digital cable services and who also have subscribed to a special package of channels for which they have to pay an additional fee.
The NFL Network signed those deals with Comcast and Cox before the league decided to put a package of eight Thursday night and Saturday night games on its network this season.
At that point, when its live offerings were limited to pre-season and NFL Europe games, it was tough to push for prime placement for the network, or get the top-dollar per-subscriber fees from cable operators it is now seeking.
Now the league believes it deserves to be offered to as broad a range of a cable systems' customers as possible. The league is said to be asking for a fee of 70 cents a month per subscriber, a rate that is seen by cable companies as too pricey. In fact it's more than just about any non-sports cable network gets paid.
The NFL Network also doesn't want its audience to be restricted by being placed on a more expensive bundle of networks with other sports channels like NBA TV either.
"We're willing to do a deal that's fair for our fans that doesn't involve extra fees being passed along to subscribers," said NFL Network spokesman Seth Palansky.
So while just about all 25 million satellite television customers of News Corp's DirecTV Group (Charts) and EchoStar Communications' (Charts) Dish Network will be able to watch the game, only a fraction of cable customers will be able to tune in.
The NFL Network clearly hoped to have many more viewers by this point. Some experts expected the network to be available in 70 million households by the kickoff of the network's first live telecast on Thanksgiving. But so far, most cable companies have held firm at the negotiating table.
"Short of the eight out-of-market games that run over six weeks, the rest of the network is niche programming so only fans need to pay for it," said Time Warner Cable spokesman Mark Harrad. "They want prime channel space at top dollar. They want us to pay another $140 million a year for games we carried last year on other networks."
Harrad claims that customer objection to not having the service has been minimal. But the NFL Network is clearly hoping that once fans realize they are missing out on games, they'll push the cable companies to strike a deal.
"My hope is that you and the rest of the subscribers in Time Warner's footprint call up Time Warner and say: We want you to have a relationship with the NFL Network," said Steve Bornstein, CEO of the network, when questioned by a New York City-based reporter during a recent press call.
Bornstein fought many of these same battles when he was a top executive at ESPN in its early days, and when that network used its first NFL games in 1987 to expand its reach. He clearly thinks the NFL has the might to win this battle again, the way ESPN once did.
Experts in the field believe that eventually the NFL Network and cable operators will find terms that they both can accept. Although it may take a season or two, along with additional growth of digital cable, to make it happen.
"It's the way these things usually work their way out -- ultimately they negotiate and battle and reach a price," said sports television consultant Lee Berke. "The reality is this is very compelling programming."
Until then, many football fans who want to get that extra helping of football on Thanksgiving and seven other days a year will have to get a dish -- a satellite dish that is.