Forget New Year’s Eve, what are you doing Dec. 29?
Indeed, we are still six games and more than a month removed from the Patriots’ regular season finale against the New York Giants, but with the lackluster Bryant Gumbel and the portentous Cris Collinsworth set to invade the living rooms of hundreds tomorrow night for the first time this season, it might be high time to bust out the panic meter.
The Patriots could be 15-0, and you might not get to witness history.
Welcome to the latest round of cable television vs. sports, where two entities with plenty of money try to hammer out a decision as to how to siphon more of it from the general public. In this case it’s the NFL Network and your local friendly cable empire squaring off over your normal holiday fare: carriage licensing, pay tiers, subscriber fees, etc.
In a nutshell, the NFL wants you to have Rich Eisen and gang for free, as long as your great-grandmother and beatnik artist cousin pony up the cash. Your maniacal cable company refuses to allow that to be the case, arguing that sports aren’t for everyone, so everyone shouldn’t have to pay. The Style Network, now that’s for everyone, as will be next year’s $5 increase on your cable bill…just because.
So, unless you have the dish, or are paying an extra few bucks per month for your company’s sports tier (and how can any red-blooded American go without the NHL Network?) odds are you’re going to miss tomorrow night’s Colts-Falcons game, which really isn’t all that frustrating.
But missing Thursday’s Cowboys-Packers tilt is.
And missing the Patriots’ potential historic moment? Well, “Rudolph’s Shiny New Year” will be on somewhere. You’re paying for that too, so might as well check it out.
The Patriots-Giants game will be seen on basic TV in both the Boston and New York markets, proper. Which is great for Boston and New York City. For New England fans in Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, not so much.
Imagine, you live in Jackson, NH, Westerly, RI, or Winooski, VT, and won’t be able to watch your team’s season finale. Unless, of course, you bow to your cable company’s demands.
You could always hit a bar, which doesn’t exactly help out those under the age of 21. Or alcoholics.
“It's tough to find heroes in this battle,” writes CNN Money columnist Chris Isidore. “As the two sides present their cold-hearted business arguments as some form of sacrifice for the public good, you find yourself wanting to see both sides lose. And if they don't come to a deal, Washington could resolve the standoff for them and change regulations in a way that hurts a system that has been so lucrative for both the leagues and the cable industry.”
For most sports fans, the blame is easy to direct at the cable company that refuses to let them have their football on basic, even as they gouge $100-plus from the consumer every month. But while it’s true that those with no interest in receiving the NFL Network shouldn’t find themselves paying for it, nor should I find a small portion of my monthly check paying for the useless CN8 or the Portuguese Channel since I don’t understand a word. And as an aside, can we do something about MTV HD? Weird Al’s UHF station had a greater variety of programming.
Sports Illustrated's Peter King put together a list of what you pay on average for some of your cable channels:
COST PER SUBSCRIBER HOUSEHOLD (per month)
Leading non-sports channels
TNT: 91 cents
Disney Channel: 83 cents
USA Network: 51 cents
CNN: 46 cents
TBS: 44 cents
Nickelodeon: 43 cents
FX: 36 cents
Leading sports channels
Fox Sports Net: $1.92
NFL Network: 80 cents
Fox College Sports: 63 cents
NHL Network: 51 cents
ESPN2: 46 cents
NBA TV: 36 cents
This is why a la carte suggestions must scare the cable companies to death. Who’s going to pay for 90 percent of this junk? You mean I have little choice but to pay $6 a year to watch 15,000 Law and Order repeats but Comcast wants me to fork over $36 annually to watch eight NFL games? My kid’s six weeks old. Can I default on my Disney Channel and Nickelodeon payments at least until he has some sort of demand for Pooh and friends?
NFL Network spokesperson Jerry Jones told King the NFL would be willing to settle with cable companies for a price of 60-65 cents per subscriber. Which means, your Comcast bill will conveniently go up twice that for 2008.
The cable operators are saying that they have to find new sources of revenue to pay for these new sports networks, rather than raising rates on all their customers and risk losing those who aren't sports fans.
The disingenuous part of that position is exposed, however, when you look at how the cable companies are relatively quick to give access to new sports networks that they have ownership stakes in.
Case in point: No. 1 cable operator Comcast gave basic cable access to the Golf Channel, which it owns, as well as to Versus, another one of its networks that is trying to become the next ESPN (since Comcast failed in its attempt to buy ESPN owner Walt Disney.
Unlike the Big Ten or NFL Networks, Versus got that coveted distribution even though it has little in the way of top-tier sports programming. Versus tried and failed to buy the games that are now on the NFL Network, essentially leaving it with only the NHL - and its cold-as-ice ratings - and the Tour de France, which got miniscule viewership even when Americans knew who was in the race.
Similarly, Time Warner Cable has denied a place to the Big Ten Network in Ohio, where Ohio State sports are king, but gave access to a new New York sports network in which it has a stake.
While the NFL wants you to take action and demand its network from your cable behemoth, a Comcast executive tells USA Today that the NFL should stop pointing the finger at cable and look in the mirror. "While the NFL claims that it wants its games to be seen by the widest possible audiences, it's actually their rules that limit which games fans can watch. … It's the NFL that decided to take these eight games off of free broadcast television and to try to enrich themselves at the expense of their fans by creating a multibillion dollar asset called the NFL Network."
True, but…no, sorry, I can’t take anything that comes out of a Comcast executive’s mouth seriously when they chastise someone else for taking advantage of the consumer.
"Ask the fans this: Would you trade in three shopping channels, the Versus Network and Turner Classic Movies for the opportunity to have one channel in this country dedicated to football year-round?” Jones asked King. “We offer a tremendous array of football-related content, the most popular programming in the country, and we do it for the cost to the cable operator of less than one movie ticket a year per subscriber. Would you rather go see one movie in the theater for two hours or have 24/7 year-round access to football?''
Right, because I’m deep into the NFL Network in May.
The situation doesn’t appear to be on the way to an easy resolution without the suits stepping in. But someone may want to alert the Gregg Easterbrooks of the world that there may be one way to get the attention of the cable companies. Root for the Pats.
John Ryan of the San Jose Mercury News argues that the potential of a 16-0 clincher on the NFL Network will likely swing public opinion in favor of the NFL. “The league is going with the model of ESPN2, which used a 1998 North Carolina-Duke No. 1-vs.-No. 2 hoops game to show the world it wasn't going to deviate from its plan,” he writes.
If history is at stake, will the cable companies crumble? The NFL can hope so.
Oh, the fans can hope so as well. But everyone else involved stopped caring about them long ago, so don’t be fooled you’re part of equation as anything other than a bargaining chip.
See you at the bar.