NFL Network: Who needs a middleman?
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The brave new world of the NFL on TV has arrived in the presence of the NFL Network. The big picture of what it all means is still coming into focus.
On the air 24 hours a day, seven days a week, since its debut in 2003, the NFL Network began airing a package of eight Thursday and Saturday night games on Thanksgiving night. It's all part of a strategy to project the NFL as a year-round sport.
"This isn't about eight games," said Steve Bornstein, president of the NFL Network. "The NFL offers the most popular programming content in this country -- it's the platinum standard of programming on TV -- and we're building a platform that will be responsive to fans' long-term interests. We have a sport that people follow 12 months of the year, and that's what we're offering our customers."
Fans of the Steelers are directly impacted this week because the featured game has the Browns playing in Heinz Field on Thursday, and they want to know if one thing -- will it be available on TV?
It won't be a problem in the Pittsburgh area, even for viewers who don't get the NFL Network with their basic cable service because KDKA will carry the game, subject to blackout restrictions. Satellite providers such as DirecTV and the Dish Network will also carry the game.
But there are sure to be viewers somewhere in the far-flung reaches of the Steeler Nation who won't get the game while the NFL and some cable giants haggle over availability, with the courts serving as referees.
Nationally, the NFL Network is available in about 41 million homes through 160 cable companies.
Comcast, for one, carries the NFL channel, but customers have to pay extra for the service. The NFL has filed a lawsuit against Comcast because it balks at being carried on a sports tier.
Other cable companies -- Time Warner, Cablevision and Charter -- have refused to bow to the NFL and don't show the channel. Their contention is that the NFL is demanding too much money per subscriber now that it is airing games. Litigation is pending.
While this power play works itself out, DirecTV is taking out full page ads offering the NFL games if subscribers sign up.
"I'm always concerned when the fan doesn't get what he wants," Bornstein said. "We're looking for the maximum number of homes we can get."
Perhaps it was inevitable that the most popular sport in a sports-obsessed country would begin airing its own games and rake in even more TV dollars. This is the first year of a six-year package, and it's the first time a sports league has aired games over its own network.
But NFL executives say their network compliments existing TV agreements, and there are no plans to monopolize the market.
For one thing, the league is paid big money -- close to $4 billion this year alone -- by CBS, FOX, NBC and ESPN for broadcast rights. To hype themselves and their other programming, each network promotes the NFL.
"We know where our bread is buttered," said Kim Williams, chief operating officer of the NFL Network. "[The new package] doesn't cannibalize existing relationships, it helps build on them."
But as far as the drawing power of football is concerned, the NFL Network is positioning itself to be a major player.
"Who better to give unprecedented access to the NFL than the NFL Network?" Ms. Williams asked.
The very existence of the NFL Network hints at the insatiable appetite that viewers have for football.
Even without the new games, the network has offered a variety of programming featuring condensed replays of games, news updates, highlights, features, news from the owners meetings, coverage of the NFL combine prior to the draft, the draft itself, mini-camps and training camps, along with a new NFL Films package on the 40 Super Bowls played to date.
"The league wanted us to make sure the sport of football was packaged as a year-round sport. I think we have done that," said Rich Eisen, formerly of ESPN and now the host of the new network.
The only restriction on editorial content is a prohibition about mentioning gambling odds, point spreads and over/under lines.
But if there is a big controversy over a call, the network can call out Mike Pereira, the director of officiating at the league office, and have him talk about it on the air. That access is as invaluable as having players and coaches miked during games.
"Sports is the ultimate escape, the ultimate in reality programming. It's true drama. You really don't know what's going to happen," Eisen said.
"The raw emotion and physical nature of the NFL definitely push a lot of peoples' buttons. It's played once a week, so every game is important. And fantasy football has drawn in a new segment. The NFL has captured the casual fan."
The NFL Network doesn't employ a sideline reporter for games.
Play-by-play and analysis are provided by the tandem of Bryant Gumbel and Cris Collinsworth, both of whom are amazed at how the NFL has grown.
"The NFL right now is the overwhelming presence in our culture," said Collinsworth. "I've sat at tables with actors, politicians and business leaders, and the common bond between everybody seems to be the NFL. It always cracks me up that all they want to talk about is football."
Gumbel had been away from play-by-play for decades. interviewing world leaders and U.S. presidents in his duties as co-anchor of NBC's "The Today Show" and CBS's "The Early Show".
"What's always been hilarious to me is even when I was away from the game, some guy would said, 'Hey, Bryant, who's going to win on Sunday?' People want to talk football.
"The appetite seems to be insatiable at this point," Gumbel said.
Pictured is the NFL Network game broadcast crew of Cris Collinsworth, left, and Bryant Gumbel in a photo provided by the network.
Click photo for larger image.
First Published December 3, 2006 12:00 am