Plotting NFL's All-Year TV Season

New NFL Network gets set for fall launch

This off-season, the National Football League is developing a new—and untested—game plan: a cable network dedicated to everything football. Slated to launch in late fall, the NFL Network will likely air news and information shows, features, and classic NFL games.

So far, former ESPN sportscaster Rich Eisen has signed on to host a nightly 8 p.m. show from Los Angeles.

One big thing is missing, of course: The NFL Network won't air live regular and playoff games. Its television rights are locked up through 2005 in a four-network TV deal and an exclusive out-of-market package with DirecTV. The channel will carry preseason games live beginning in the 2004 season, but the coverage won't infringe on existing national or local deals.

That differs from the NBA TV network, which this past season aired more than 100 live games and is available on DirecTV and EchoStar's Dish Network.

There don't seem to be many risks in the NFL net, but one concern is that the football season, at best, lasts from training camp in late summer to the Pro Bowl in late January. Who cares about pro football in June?

Fox Sports Chairman David Hill couldn't disagree more. He sees NFL Network as a way to boost broadcast ratings: "The more informed viewer is the more excited viewer."

The NFL Network is just the latest sports-specific channel. The Tennis Channel recently served up its first matches, and the Golf Channel already has a place with golf fanatics. The Fox-owned Speed Channel is trying to satisfy broad interests of auto-racing fans, and College Sports Television offers a slew of athletics.

What there will probably be a lot of on NFL Network is footage from NFL Films, the league's production arm, which will be the main programming supplier. Its crews shoot every NFL contest, and its archives date back four decades.

Classic games are sure to get good play, although NFL Films has a deal with ESPN Classic. The new net may also rebroadcast games, and there will be HD and VOD fare.

The NFL is said to be committing about $100 million to start up the network. The endeavor is drawing a lot of attention. The NFL is the most "most popular, powerful and profitable sports league," explains Denver-based sports consultant Dean Bonham.

Indeed, the league boasts the most lucrative sports-rights deal, a $16 billion broadcast and cable agreement with Fox, CBS, ABC and ESPN that runs until 2005. And the NFL enjoys strong ratings as other pro sports watch their audiences shrink.

"The [NFL] name carries a halo effect," said veteran media buyer Howard Nass, adding that advertisers could see the network as a way to reach men.

The net's playmaker is former ABC Sports and ESPN chief Steve Bornstein. He has recruited fellow ABC Sports vet Howard Katz as COO for NFL Films (that company's founder and President Steve Sabol oversees production), and former Fox Sports executive Adam Shaw has signed on as senior vice president of distribution. Last week, Bornstein recruited NFL Senior Broadcast Director Charles Coplin as vice president of programming and former YES Network Programming Director Daniel Margulis as director of acquisitions.

The net already has about 11 million subscribers on DirecTV's basic package. The distribution was part of an exclusive deal for out-of-market games negotiated last December, which cable operators badly wanted.

Now they have the power as the NFL stumps for carriage. NFL Network is unlikely to demand much in the way of subscriber fees. Still, analog space is scarce, and digital spots are in demand.

Jerry McKenna, vice president of strategic marketing for MSO Cable One, says the NFL Network would be enticing if it helped cable compete with DBS. But he questions the demand. "I'm not sure there is enough news and sizzle to carry a [football] network all year."

ESPN Executive Vice President of Programming Mark Shapiro isn't worried about its cutting into his NFL business. Sports fans, he contends, come first to ESPN. Then, "the extreme football nut who doesn't get enough NFL will turn over [to the NFL Network.]"