The gloves are off. The NFL Network and cable providers are battling it out, with no end in sight. At issue: How the league makes available games over its 3-year-old network. In recent days I've spoken to people on both sides, from NFL Network chief operating officer Kim Williams to cable providers in the Seattle-Tacoma area.
My story, as submitted tonight:
By Mike Sando
The News Tribune
KIRKLAND - The forecast calls for high winds at Qwest Field.
That would be in addition to the hot air flying back and forth between the NFL Network and cable television providers.
Puget Sound football fans are insulated from this swirling war of words. Unlike millions of fans outside the Seattle-Tacoma market, they can watch the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers play tonight without holding a ticket to the game.
Around here, viewers have options.
Those without cable or satellite subscriptions can tune their televisions to KCPQ channel 13 for the 5 p.m. kickoff. High-definition viewers can catch the over-the-air broadcast on channel 18.
KPCQ is carrying the game in the Seattle and Tacoma areas because NFL rules require games to air on free television within a 75-mile radius of the home and visiting markets.
Comcast subscribers can find the game on channels 13 (standard definition), 113 (HD) and 664 (HD). Or they can watch the game on NFL Network (channel 180 SD, channel 417 HD).
Subscribers to Click! Network's digital package get the NFL Network on channel 422 (SD only), but they'll have to watch the game on KCPQ.
This is because Click! Network, like several other providers around the country, balked at the fees and restrictions that come with showing the NFL Network's eight-game package of Thursday and Saturday games.
It's about the money
Three-year-old NFL Network, owned by the league, bills itself as the fastest-growing cable channel with 41 million subscribers.
The network offers football 24/7, from highlights, news and analysis to coverage of the scouting combine, draft, Super Bowl week, college all-star games, press conferences and more.
NFL Network began carrying live games last month as part of a six-year arrangement featuring eight regular-season games per season.
The Seahawks-49ers game is the fourth of eight late-season NFL Network games this season.
Bryant Gumbel and Cris Collinsworth are calling the games, but some of the hardest-hitting action has been off the field.
The network is charging cable providers to show the games. Some providers want to package the network with premium-tier sports programming, claiming this will allow them to pass along the costs to those interested in NFL Network.
"Our original plan was to offer the games to our customers," said Mitch Robinson, Click! Network's marketing and business operations manager, "but when the NFL added a hefty surcharge that would have required us to pass on a sizeable rate increase to most of our customers, regardless of whether or not they watched the eight-game schedule, that was unacceptable to us."
With network revenues tied to viewership, the league wants its programming available on basic cable.
"We are not so interested in having our fans being charged incrementally for content that I think we'd all agree is pretty broadly popular and the furthest thing from niche programming," Kim Williams, chief operating officer for NFL Network, said this week.
Litigation between the league and cable providers, notably Time-Warner, is ongoing. The parties even have dueling Web sites: www.iwantmynfl.com vs. www.nflgetreal.com.
The losers, for now, are fans who want the NFL Network and/or its games but can't get one or both on cable.
Not available everywhere
Fans living outside the home market's 75-mile radius can't watch cable games on local affiliates. It's a problem ESPN faced before the all-sports network became ubiquitous. It's a lesser problem for NFL Network because the network carries only eight games, and because the network is adding viewers at a healthy rate.
"Our point has always been that there are home-market fans who don't live in the home market, and those secondary markets are incredibly important," Williams, the NFL Network COO, said. "That is one of the reasons why our marketing has been around making people aware of the fact that just because there is an over-the-air broadcast, if you are out of that home-market area, you won't be able to see the game.
"Please call your local cable operator. You can switch to satellite and get the NFL Network. That really has been our mantra to the fans, to put pressure on the cable operators to offer the NFL Network beyond just the home market."
The dispute has drawn interest from politicians. Sen. Arlen Specter, outgoing chairman of Senate Judiciary Committee, has even vowed to propose legislation stripping the NFL of antitrust protection.
The NFL Network's game schedule is the latest step in the league's push to cover itself. Teams are hiring current and former journalists to provide content for their Web sites.
NFL Network host Rich Eisen worked previously at ESPN. He holds a master's degree from Northwestern University's prestigious Medill School of Journalism.
Eisen often adopts an accusatory tone while grilling league officiating director Mike Pereira in a weekly segment dissecting notable on-field rulings.
"We don't have editorial police at the league," Williams said. "We don't have an editorial-review process at the league; we have editorial-review process within the network. …
"Our philosophy is rooted in credibility."
Is that possible when the reporters draw their salaries from their subjects? Media ethicist Bob Steele expressed concerns.
"It is problematic for the league to be covering itself," said Steele, who serves as Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. "One of the core principles in journalism is independence. Ideally, the journalists covering a story are not connected to the story in a direct way.
"The journalists are not beholden to the teams, the owners, the players in a story. The journalists have the professional distance that not only allows them but requires them to report the truth with rigor."
NFL Network executives say their long-term ambitions do not include taking over as the sole source of NFL programming. President and CEO Steve Bornstein, formerly of ESPN, said he views NFL Network as a "complement" to the other networks.
"We are committed to having a broad reach and having all of our games in the local area," Bornstein said during a media conference call last month. "We have been very successful in not tinkering with that recipe over the last four years.
"My anticipation is that we will grow along with the NFL, but we are very happy with our three broadcast packages, our cable packages and our relationship with DIRECTV."