NFL TV's Game Coverage Finds Limited Audience
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
Last night, the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Cleveland Browns by a score of 27 to seven. And besides guarantying the Browns a losing record for the fourth season in a row, the game was the third in the National Football League's bold television experiment. It is showing games on its own cable TV network instead of selling them to the big broadcast in cable companies.
As he does most Friday's, Wall Street Journal sportwriter Stephan Fatsis joins us. And Stephan, if we didn't get enough on Sundays and Mondays, and now, the NFL wants us to set out Thursday nights for football and not just Thanksgiving.
Mr. STEPHAN FATSIS (Wall Street Journal): You know, on Saturday nights, too. When the NFL redid its TV deals before this season, it knew that it would keep pulling in billions of dollars from the broadcasting cable networks to spread its reach even further. It set aside eight games late in season, five on Thursdays, three on Saturdays. The question was sell those to one of the networks in a conventional fashion for about $400 million or so a year.
Or, enhance the league's three-year-old NFL Network venture. It shows the latter.
SIEGEL: Now, the league had to hope that the nation's cable television offer would carry the NFL Network channel, but it hasn't worked that way?
MR. FATSIS: No, with live games. The NFL Network decided to jack up the fees that it charges cable operators to carry the channel to about .70 cents per subscriber from about .20 cents. The problem has been that some of the nation's biggest cable operators have refused to pay up and put the network on basic cable, notably, Cablevision and Time Warner Cable in New York and Philadelphia-based Comcast, which is the nation's biggest cable operator.
SIEGEL: And they're doing so on the grounds that the NFL just wants too much money.
MR. FATSIS: Yup. For a network that they say shows its best programming just eight times a year. They've ignored the network entirely or put it on premium tiers that cost subscribers extra money and that's triggered a nasty PR fight. There are competing Web sites. There have been lawsuits. The NFL has one against Comcast. Time Warner Cable filed one yesterday against the satellite operator DirectTV. There was a congressional hearing. And there even have been threats from a senator, outgoing Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter to go after the NFL's anti-trust exemption.
The bottom line is that the NFL Network was available on about 20 percent of the nation's cable homes, about 90 million cable homes, before it decided to add the live games to its talk shows and pre-season games and college draft and stuff like that. And now it's in about 40 percent of the cable households.
SIEGEL: Cutting a lot of potential audience.
MR. FATSIS: Yeah, it does. It's not just NFL games either. The NFL Network is showing some college games. One of them is the Texas Bowl on December 28 between Rutgers and Kansas State. Now most of Rutgers's home state of New Jersey doesn't get the NFL Network. And the NFL isn't budging. They're not allowing that game to be shown anywhere else.
SIEGEL: You're talking about the National Football League, a league that prides itself on being the biggest draw in all pro sports and on being very savvy when it comes to business. And here it is, evidently having allowed itself to be squeezed by the cable operators.
MR. FATSIS: And the numbers so far are pretty embarrassing for the league. The first two games on Thursday nights were seen by an average of 4.4 million people. The best game of the year on Fox on broadcast TV had an audience of nearly 28 million people. Now the NFL says numbers are beside the point right now, and I tend to agree with them. This is really about how the league will control and distribute its product in the future.
SIEGEL: Now, so much for the future, back to the past and the retro look of a couple of NFL coaches along the sideline.
MR. FATSIS: They're wearing suits. I love this. Mike Nolan of the San Francisco 49ers and Jack Del Rio of the Jacksonville Jaguars have been allowed to wear suits for two games this year. Nolan brought up the idea last year. He wanted to do it to honor his father, Dick, who coached the 49ers back in the days when legends like Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry and Hank Stram, with that pocket, hanky wore suits on the sidelines.
Nobody has done it since 1993, and the reason is that coaches are required to model official license gear like everybody else on the field. And the NFL initially said no to Mike Nolan. Reebok then agreed to design some suits. Each coach has been allowed to wear them for two games this season. The second one is this coming Sunday.
SIEGEL: Do they get to wear fedoras with Reebok logos on them?
MR. FATSIS: Someday we can hope. Then Tom Landry would be smiling up there.
SIEGEL: Stephan Fatsis of The Wall Street Journal, who talks with us about sports and the business of sports. Thanks a lot, Stephan.
MR. FATSIS: Thanks, Robert.
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