SBJ/20090817/This Week's News

NFL RedZone cable channel cutting it close

Just four weeks before the planned launch of the NFL RedZone channel, only one cable operator has agreed to carry it, thrusting the league into yet another round of carriage battles with the cable industry.

When the channel launches Sept. 13, the first Sunday of the regular season, only Comcast, the country’s biggest cable operator, plans to roll out the channel on its sports and entertainment tier, which has close to 2 million subscribers.

So far, little is known about the fledgling channel, which is mirrored after the Red Zone Channel from DirecTV’s popular Sunday Ticket service — right down to the same name, though with a different structure. Both services are tailored for fantasy football enthusiasts, providing live look-ins to the league’s Sunday afternoon games, plus updated statistics and scoring plays. 

The league originally planned to launch its NFL RedZone in 2012, but that schedule was accelerated in May when the NFL extended its deals with CBS and Fox by two years (See SportsBusiness Journal, May 18-24). The NFL’s Sunday afternoon broadcast partners needed to give the league permission to use its game productions for a cable-only red zone channel.

The league’s NFL RedZone will be produced by NFL Network and overseen by President Steve Bornstein. It is separate from DirecTV’s channel, which is part of its NFL Sunday Ticket service. The NFL is building a set for the channel at its NFL Network studios and has yet to settle on a host or other talent to work on the show. With distribution at launch expected to be low, the league isn’t expected to attach much advertising to the channel.

But distribution looks to be an issue. So far, all cable operators besides Comcast have passed. Several cable executives who have seen the plans for NFL RedZone say the channel is too expensive — the same complaint used against NFL Network.

Cable sources say the NFL’s initial offer is for about 25 cents per subscriber per month, a rate that puts NFL RedZone on par with Golf Channel.

However, cable executives say it’s difficult to compare NFL RedZone to a network like Golf Channel. Golf Channel is a 24-hour, year-round channel and cable executives have been told that NFL RedZone will only exist during Sunday afternoon NFL games, from the start of the 1 p.m. ET games through the late afternoon games, which amounts to about seven or eight hours a week, 17 weeks a year.

One holdup for several cable operators is the NFL’s demand that they agree to carry NFL Network in order to get access to NFL RedZone. Three of the five biggest cable operators, Time Warner, Charter and Cablevision, still have not struck deals to carry NFL Network, deals that were expected to be struck easily once Comcast signed its deal in May and presumably set the market. These cable operators are still balking at the NFL’s price (50 to 60 cents) and tiering (digital basic) demands for NFL Network.

But even operators that have deals to carry NFL Network, including Cox, are resisting the channel.

An NFL Network spokesman said the league is in discussions with cable operators and other providers and hopes to have more signed up by its launch. NFL Network COO Kim Williams is taking the lead in the cable negotiations.

Meanwhile, DirecTV is continuing to produce its own Red Zone Channel this season, having started rehearsals with channel host Andrew Siciliano earlier this month.

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