NFL claims discrimination from cable networks
Despite its status as the nation's most popular sport, the National Football League suffers from discrimination at the hands of cable TV operators, its chief executive told a congressional panel Wednesday.
The league-owned NFL Network airs eight games each year that are not widely available to viewers, thanks to a bitter dispute between the league and the nation's two biggest cable companies, Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said the cable operators "enjoy a high level of bottleneck power" and treat the NFL Network in a "sharply different and clearly less favorable" way than networks they own a stake in.
Goodell did not ask for legislation, but asked members of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet to pressure the Federal Communications Commission to enforce existing federal law that bars discrimination against unaffiliated networks.
Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., said Goodell's claims of discrimination were "a little hard to swallow" considering the league's own antitrust exemption. She said the dispute is really about money.
Glenn Britt, president and CEO of Time Warner Cable, called the NFL's position "especially disingenuous" considering its exclusive arrangement with DirecTV Inc. to air the "NFL Sunday Ticket" package of out-of-market games.
The trend of exclusivity has grown recently, said subcommittee chairman and Boston Red Sox fan Ed Markey, D-Mass., noting Major League Baseball's "Extra Innings" package, slated to be carried exclusively on DirecTV.
The FCC has a process for resolving disputes between cable operators and programmers, but it has been criticized for being underused and ineffective by owners of independent networks.
The core of the NFL Network dispute is the league's preference that it be carried on basic cable tiers. Time Warner has refused to carry the NFL Network channel unless it's part of a higher-priced package. Comcast carries the channel on a premium tier.
The dispute has left fans caught in the middle, said Consumer Federation of America research director Mark Cooper.
"The current system, where the cable operators and dominant sport programmers force consumers to pay ever-increasing prices for a restricted set of choices, is the worst possible for the consumers," he said.
Cooper said the solution is to allow consumers to buy programming on a stand-alone basis, a proposal opposed by both programmers and system operators.
Britt warned against government intervention, saying negotiations "may be messy at times" but are best resolved in the marketplace.