SBJ/December 4 - 10, 2006/This Weeks News

Will NFL fans defect to satellite?

Now that the pregame bluster is over and the NFL Network has started airing live regular-season games, industry watchers are keeping an eye on whether subscribers will churn away from the multisystem operators that aren’t carrying the network.

KC and Denver kicked off live regular-season NFL
games on the NFL Network on Thanksgiving.

The consensus is that a deal between a major operator and the NFL Network will not be reached this year. The belief is that Time Warner Cable, Charter and Cablevision will not carry the NFL Network until a federal judge decides whether Comcast is allowed to move the network to a sports tier, numerous sources say. That decision is expected to come at some point next year.

But if subscribers begin to leave cable for satellite, operators will have added pressure to carry the network.

“It’s all going to come down to the subscriber,” said Mike Trager, an industry consultant and former chairman of Clear Channel Entertainment’s TV division. “If cable operators get enough complaints and threats of churn, they will have to deal.”

Figures of complaints and churn, however, are hard to come by, as both sides were claiming victory after the network’s inaugural Thanksgiving game. Cable operators were nearly unanimous in saying that customer complaints weren’t any higher than they’ve always been, and NFL Network says it experienced an “overwhelming” response, via e-mail and visits to its Web site, iwantmynfl.com.

Leading cable operators seemed emboldened by the lack of NFL Network-related activity surrounding the first live game, which earned a 6.8 cable rating (4.2 million viewers) in its coverage area. It posted a 2.3 national rating based on the entire U.S. TV universe. “There wasn’t a large uproar in our call centers,” said Mark Harrad, Time Warner Cable’s senior vice president of corporate communications. “There’s no indication of a huge amount of unhappiness.”

Still, it’s clear that cable’s competitors believe they have a competitive advantage by carrying the network. “We are very pleased with our NFL deal,” said Carl Vogel, president of satellite operator EchoStar.

Satellite executives partially credit the NFL Network for third-quarter results. EchoStar added 295,000 new subscribers during the quarter, up from last year’s growth of 255,000 in the quarter, and DirecTV added 165,000, which was down from last year’s 263,000.

Still, NFL Network did grab some momentum from the first game. It reached a deal with the country’s eighth-largest cable operator, Insight Communications, which agreed to carry the games less than a week after the network’s first live game.

NFL Network also announced plans to stream its games to DirecTV and Verizon FiOS subscribers. The webcast will include different camera angles and stats.

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