Little Outrage Over Missed NFL Games On Cable

You could barely hear the rustle of beer bottles and pizza boxes in front of the TV screen last Thursday.

That was Thanksgiving Day, which, for some reason revealed no groundswell of consumer disgust over the fact that many were missing a pressing NFL game on the NFL Network--the Kansas City Chiefs beating out the Denver Broncos, 19-10.

It was the NFL Network's debut of its much maligned and controversial Thursday night package of eight football games. Three major cable operators--Time Warner, Charter Communications, and Cablevision Systems--said the network wanted too much money for just eight games a year. They said they would put the NFL package on a digital tier where consumers would pay an extra fee--creating, in effect, a cable Siberia.

The lack of outrage from TV consumers must mean they are content that some TV programming doesn't always make it to the screen--not a ho-hum NFL game, not more episodes of ABC's "The Nine," not even a manufactured event like a new O.J Simpson interview (for which there was plenty of outrage that the event would even make it to the TV screen in the first place).



The NFL and its fledging NFL Network blew it. Though football has more going for it than just about any other major sport--in terms of ratings, marketing partnerships, and overall license fees from other networks--the NFL misfired by believing that the lack of some eight regular season games would force mass consumer outrage, causing cable operators to eventually succumb. 

It's sometimes hard to side with cable system operators, given their virtual monopoly on wired TV distribution over the last few decades, and their noted monthly subscriber price hikes. Instead, it took the equally arrogant NFL to make cable operators look like sane businesspeople. Why should cable operators pay NFL 70 cents a subscriber per month for an entire year, for just eight days of programming--eight NFL games?

These are games consumers can already get on over-the-air stations, when their home market team plays--game that both Kansas City and Denver football fans received. Who got hurt then? It was the Chiefs fans in Cincinnati; the Bronco fans in Boise, Idaho. 

Perhaps 20 years ago, when the TV programming and distribution universe was more of a unified, and smaller world, one could claim viewers were being unjustly hurt.  This is generally a local problem--such as in 2002, when Cablevision refused to carry the YES network and New York Yankee baseball games.

If the NFL Network weren't so greedy, it would keep its monthly 20 cents per subscriber fee intact--or raise it more modestly. This, in turn, would give it a bigger distribution system--much beyond its 41 million cable and satellite consumers. And all this would make it easier for national advertisers to buy the network, thus creating more revenue.

But some TV programmers are an avaricious lot. They don't just want to beat you--they want to run up the score.

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