RIP NFL Network?

June 25, 2008

The Wall Street Journal reported last week the NFL Network might join forces with ESPN Classic to form a more perfect professional football television union.

The fledgling network, much like the Big Ten Network, has fought cable giants with little success to get on expanded basic tiers. NFL Network executives filed an FCC complaint against Comcast, alleging the cable company discriminated against the network for putting Comcast’s own sports channels on expanded basic coverage but not the NFL Network.  The matter likely is heading for an FCC showdown.

Nobody disputes the NFL’s No. 1 status among American professional sports leagues. This incident is the first in decades where the NFL didn’t get what it wanted on demand. It’s almost refreshing to see an entity stand up to it.

By pooling resources with ESPN, the NFL Network would solve many of its distribution issues. It may actually improve the network as well. That said, the NFL Network has many positives that hopefully remain in any transition.

The NFL Network rarely uses the wonderful resources of NFL Films, which next to live events is its strongest asset. In June and July, the network is tremendous with old games, past highlights and NFL Films programming. The rest of the year it’s full of too many SportsCenter-esque shows cramming 10 minutes of news in a one-hour set then repeated for 12 hours a day.

Everyone expects the NFL Network to publicize the league and its players. It often goes way over the top when it brings players aboard its access shows but that’s to be expected. It would be interesting to see how a new-look NFL Network would balance a pro-NFL view with ESPN’s quick-twitch journalism style.

In 2006, NFL owners sent eight primetime games to the NFL Network to give it a higher profile and force cable companies to carry it. The plan backfired because over-the-air television stations in NFL markets televise sold-out games featuring their local team when it plays on a cable network. Even if it wanted to, the NFL Network couldn’t hold local fans hostage.

The NFL Network caved on its 2007 season finale when the unbeaten New England Patriots played the New York Giants with 16-0 on the line. With a potentially historic event on the line, the NFL allowed NBC and CBS to broadcast the game.

Unless Comcast, Time-Warner, Mediacom and other cable companies pickup the NFL Network on their basic tiers (which will not happen), the NFL Network walks away a loser under any scenario. Combining with ESPN means it failed. Being relegated to sports tier status also means failure. But the former option is the only viable financial alternative for the NFL Network at this point. It also might make the network even better.


BTN’s next stop Mediacom?

June 23, 2008

The Big Ten Network’s deal with Comcast last week could set the dominoes in motion for other cable companies this summer, including Mediacom, to pick up the fledgling sports network.

Comcast will pay the Big Ten Network reportedly between 60 and 70 cents per customer in Big Ten states and place the network on its expanded basic tier through spring 2009. Comcast then can shift the BTN to a widely distributed digital tier (which will happen anyway with the death of analog next year). This is good news for Mediacom subscribers.

Fans understandably were upset last year when they couldn’t watch football or basketball games. Many fans called school administrators or sports reporters, including myself, to vent because they couldn’t get through to Mediacom or Big Ten Network reps. The whole point of starting the Big Ten Network was to provide exposure to the league’s schools. Instead, the distribution issue set the league back 20 years in television time for big cable customers.

With its recent deal, the Big Ten Network recognized it needed the cable companies a little more than big cable needed the BTN. The network was flexible in its deal with Comcast. If the Big Ten Network provides similar flexibility to Mediacom, this saga could come to a close by late August.

Sports will heal Iowa … in time

June 17, 2008

One million years ago, or five days ago, UI received the OK to reconstruct Carver-Hawkeye Arena for $47 million. At the time regents approved the plan, I stood along Normandy Drive in Iowa City in knee-deep water. A man tried to drive his pick-up truck filled with heirlooms and possessions through the water and to safety. The truck never made it and filled with water. He called a friend about 100 yards away pleading for help. His friend notified fire officials, who assembled a rescue team and boated the man to safety. That was just one of many heroic events on both sides of the Corridor in one of the darkest days in state history.

A $47 million addition to Carver-Hawkeye Arena seems insignificant compared to people losing their homes and their possessions. Maybe in a few months people can look at this project and see value for all. For now, most people are consumed with tearing out drywall, disposing of blankets and throwing away family treasures than building a pair of basketball courts in Iowa City.

Our state needs to cry, laugh, embrace, swear loudly and eventually cheer. Sports will help the recovery of our state as much as the New Orleans Saints’ 2006 season helped heal Louisiana. But it will take time, as it should.  

NFL Network has issues

June 2, 2008

For more than three years, NFL Network executives have hurled insults and accusations at big cable, and now have filed an FCC complaint toward Comcast. Network executives and NFL owners want the network to join cable’s expanded basic tiers to collect more revenue and command even more exposure for the nation’s most popular sport.

Cable companies long have contended the NFL Network demands too much money (about 80 cents a customer according to some reports) for eight live NFL games and a handful of other live football games. Cable companies, such as Comcast or even Iowa’s main provider Mediacom, have requested to put the NFL Network on sports tiers where they can recoup the costs and only interested sports fans have to pay for it.

The NFL Network argues the NFL is the nation’s most popular sport and some cable companies (such as Comcast) own sports networks and give them preferential treatment over more relevent start-up sports networks. The NFL Network preaches that most cable systems (heck, probably all) have plenty of cable networks that garner fewer ratings than would the NFL Network.

Each side makes a good argument. The NFL is, by far, the most popular sport in America. Check its annual ratings for live games against any other sport or even American Idol, and it comes out way ahead. But cable companies have a point, too. The network doesn’t offer much beyond eight live games, which used to appear on Saturday afternoons free on over-the-air networks in late December prior to 2006. It’s a lot to ask people who care very little for football to pay more for a channel they won’t watch, especially with gas and food costs rising almost daily. 

I think a general solution for both arguments exist. One, place the network on a digital cable tier that costs a bit more money for interested — but not all — consumers. Two, every live game would move up to an available cable channel (such as Mediacom Connections) for all customers. Three, allow the NFL Network to show some of its programming on an available cable channel at select times.

It’s not perfect, but neither is the NFL Network. Until it stops repeating its daily one-hour access show up to 12 hours a day and reshowing its other coverage two or three times a day, it’s hard to justify this channel over any other with more live or varied programming. It also would help if it updated its online schedule once the dates ran out.