Kerry Pressures Cable Operators, NFL Chieftains

Washington – Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is putting pressure on big cable TV operators and National Football League officials to ensure broad consumer access to games televised by the league-owned NFL Network.

Kerry outlined his concerns in a letter sent Thursday to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell but not directly to officials at Comcast and Time Warner, the two largest cable companies that have been at odds with the league on carriage terms. Instead, Kerry reached out to cable via National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow.

“I recognize that the games shown on the NFL Network have been the long-standing subject of commercial negotiations. I do not wish to interfere with these negotiations, and I hope that the two sides can come to an agreement that will ensure that NFL games will be broadcast to the maximum number of television households across the country,” Kerry said.

Kerry noted that if the New England Patriots (12-0) win their first 15 games, their final regular season game against the New York Giants will be televised exclusively on Dec. 29 by the NFL Network.

Although Comcast carries the network on a sports tier seen in a minority of homes, Time Warner doesn’t carry it at all. Both cable operators have complained that the NFL Network is demanding too much money, while NFL leaders insist that cable is denying access to some of the most popular programming on TV.

“In light of the unique circumstances surrounding the 2007 New England Patriots, I urge you to reach an agreement as soon as possible, so that football fans across the country are not prevented from viewing what could be an historic sporting event,” Kerry said in one-page letter.

The Patriots final game will be available on broadcast TV in both the New York and Boston markets. Comcast and Time Warner subscribers in those markets will have access to the game because cable had to carry local TV stations. In other markets, football fans need access to DirecTV or Dish Network or a cable company with an NFL Network deal. A sports bar is another option.

“Unfortunately, millions of fans outside of the local media markets - including fans living in Massachusetts and New York -- will not have access to the network that will broadcast the game,” Kerry said.

A perfect season by the Patriots would be the first one since the 1972 Miami Dolphins.

“While the National Football League and a few major cable companies continue to blame each other for the current state of NFL Network carriage, too many American football fans are being held hostage,” Kerry said. “Unfortunately, this disagreement has led to the use of what could potentially be an historic football game as leverage in a negotiation.”

NFL officials called for Comcast and other cable TV operators to negotiate a carriage deal. “Commissioner Goodell welcomes the senator’s comments because we, too, want broad cable distribution for NFL Network. We agree that the big cable companies should sit down and negotiate with us for distribution comparable to their own channels,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in a prepared statement. 

Comcast officials didn’t respond specifically to the letter from Kerry, but reiterated the company’s argument that not all cable TV subscribers should be forced to pay for a niche sports channel.

“Under our agreement with the NFL, which the league negotiated and signed, we offer NFL Network as part of our Sports Entertainment Package. This is the best and fairest way to provide their expensive programming to customers, because viewers who want to watch the channel will be able to see it, while others who prefer not to receive it will not be forced to pay for it,” a Comcast spokeswoman said