SBJ/20090126/This Week's News

Pressure point: Should NFL alter its policy on local coverage of games not blacked out?

Has distribution for NFL Network been hurt by the league’s policy that mandates that every game not facing a blackout be broadcast into its local market?

Cable executives privately think so, and are terrified that the NFL will eventually do away with that practice, leading to more pressure on cable operators to cut a deal.

Imagine the amount of pressure operators would face if, for example, cable subscribers in Dallas can’t see a Cowboys game that is on NFL Network.

Currently, the NFL would make that game available to a local broadcaster in the Dallas designated market area.

Other NFL cable partners, like ESPN and TNT, have tried to get rid of this policy over the years. In bidding for a package of game rights in 2004, Comcast wanted to shelve that rule, believing it would hurt its sports channel’s chances to increase its license fee and distribution.

Other networks say cable exclusivity has been critical in getting cable operators to make deals. A Fox executive suggested that the Big Ten Network never would have been able to cut cable deals with Comcast or Time Warner if it had to make its games available to over-the-air broadcasters.

Mark Lazarus, who oversaw NFL programming while with TNT for 16 years, suggested that the NFL should consider moving away from that 20-year-old rule.

“The other sports have been more progressive,” said Lazarus, who is now with Career Sports and Entertainment. “They’ve been able to command rights fee growth. But they’ve also given value to the networks and their distribution partners in exchange by making it exclusively available over the cable and satellite platform.”

However, Steve Bornstein, head of the NFL Network, said the league has no intention of changing that rule.

“Our eyes were wide open,” he said. “We knew exactly what we were doing, and we still think our sport and the content we’re putting out there is popular enough that people are going to demand it from their distributors.”

The problem is that the NFL is tied to the rule.

League executives have curried favor in Washington, D.C., by highlighting their TV policy. It would be hard for them to do an about-face and do away with a rule that they have been championing on Capitol Hill for decades.

In November, for example, after ESPN paid $495 million over four years to bring all BCS bowl games — including the championship game — to cable, the NFL’s top lobbyists blanketed Capitol Hill with a simple message: Unlike every other sports property in America, the NFL is committed to making every regular-season and postseason game available to over-the-air broadcasters.

In a letter sent to all members of the U.S. House of Representatives, the NFL’s Jeffrey Miller called the broadcast-centric approach “the centerpiece of our television policy.”

“It’s been our policy for over 20 years and we don’t see any reason to change it,” Bornstein said. “We want to serve everybody. I inherited those broadcasting policies. As a professional in the business, you admire those broadcasting policies. That’s contributed to the broad popularity of the sport. I don’t see any reason to really challenge that.”

 — John Ourand

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