Aiming the 'Patriot' Missile At Program Access


The issue of sports migration to pay TV and just how vital being able to watch a football game really is to the national psyche could be coming to a hard-helmeted head in the next few weeks.

The NFL Network has been trying to gain carriage on cable systems with the lure of a package of regular-season games.

So far, it has run in to some high-profile tussles with Time Warner and Comcast over whether it should be on an exanded basic tier or a premium sports tier–Comcast has put it on a sports tier, Time Warner has not put it anywhere as far as I know. Cable operators say they should be free to put in on a premium tier, saying that will allow those who really want the channel to buy it rather than making everyone else defray the cost, in essence mirroring an a la carte argument often used against the cable industry.

If cable operators do put the channel on basic, then raise their rates, they could be expected to hear it from Washington, where bashing cable rates is an easy appplause line, though talking about the doubling of cable channels and the increase in other services gets shorter shrift.

A number of legislators and regulators are concerned that cable is using its market power to play harder ball in the talks with NFL Network than they should, to the detriment of fans. The cable industry argues that it is a marketplace negotiation and there is no need for Washington’s thumb on the scales.

Enter the New England Patriots on the way to a possible perfect season of 16 wins and no losses. The final game of that regular-season run happens to be on the NFL Network.

Look for Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who earlier encouraged a deal between cable and the Boston Red Sox so that expatriot viewers elsewhere could see those games, to make some mention of the historic aspect of the Naw England game (if they remain unbeaten ’til then, which looks about as safe as death and taxes).

The NFL Net could probably gain some major fuzzies if it played the"high road" card, and took the marketing opportunity, to say that while the "big bad cable companies" were trying to deny viewers the historic game, it would make it available on a one-time basis to any cable operator who did not want to disserve its fans.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin might be able to get some mileage out of the game as well in his effort to submit contentious programming negotiations to arbitration.

Stay tuned.