Murdoch: No NFL, No New Sports Net

New York -- A handful of some of the most powerful names in media converged on the Goldman Sachs & Co. Communacopia conference here Tuesday, breaking no earth-shaking news but providing a glimpse into the competitive climate their respective companies face.

Sports-programming rights, triple-play advanced services and competitive pressures to retain basic subscribers were all major topics for each of the speakers, which included such heavy hitters as News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch, Comcast Corp. chairman and CEO Brian Roberts and DirecTV Group Inc. CEO Chase Carey.

Murdoch got some tongues wagging early in the session when he said that DirecTV is adding around 10,000 new subscribers per month through its resale agreements with regional Bell operating companies Verizon Communications and BellSouth Corp.

He added that he hopes to sign a similar deal with Qwest Communications International Inc., and that DirecTV is on pace to add 2 million subscribers this year.

News Corp. is also making moves toward creating new cable channels, and Murdoch said the media giant has several ideas on the drawing board, including a reality channel, a financial channel and an entertainment channel (he called the latter two a “no-brainer”), but he added that launching a sports network to rival ESPN would not likely be in the cards because he doesn’t have National Football League cable rights.

News Corp.’s Fox Broadcasting Co. has broadcast rights to NFL games.

While Murdoch said News Corp. would have little problem finding cable partners for such a network, “it is a pointless exercise without an NFL franchise,” he added.

Differentiated programming was the gist of Roberts’ question-and-answer session with Goldman media analyst Anthony Noto.

Roberts said the industrywide basic-subscriber losses in the second quarter were not the beginning of a trend, adding that differentiated services like Comcast’s free-video-on-demand service offering would keep customers loyal.

Comcast had 50 million downloads of its VOD product last month -- 15 million of which were HBO On Demand. Roberts said what makes that number even more startling is that only 5 million boxes with VOD capability are in the field.

Roberts also praised Comcast’s NFL Network programming deal, adding that the On Demand service had 600,000 downloads in its first week and it is on track to reach 2.5 million orders in its first month. That, he added, compares with the 1.5 million total customers for DirecTV’s “NFL Sunday Ticket” package.

Sunday Ticket is coming up for renewal, and it has been speculated that Comcast would try to make a play for the NFL package. While Roberts didn’t talk about that possibility, Carey said it is unlikely that the NFL would want to undermine its broadcast franchise by broadly distributing games on cable.

Carey said DirecTV is in discussions with the league, adding that the direct-broadcast satellite provider will only pay a reasonable price. He added that even if DirecTV lost the contract -- which is exclusive through the 2005 season -- it still has exclusive HDTV rights through the 2006 and 2007 seasons.

“HD would give us an angle to play as being the best in Sunday Ticket,” Carey said after the conference.