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New NFL Channel Needs MSOs To Pick Up the Ball

When the NFL Network kicks off Nov. 4, it will count more than 11 million homes, an unusually large subscriber base for a new digital channel. Even more unusual, though, is they are all DirecTV homes. Less than two weeks before launch NFL Network only had one carriage deal.

Its DirecTV deal was negotiated in conjunction with the DBS company's new out-of-market package. The network will be offered on DirecTV's most widely distributed package and has a plum channel spot at 212, one channel up from ESPN.

Securing carriage with cable operators is proving more challenging.

President and CEO Steve Bornstein, former head of ABC and ESPN, wants the broadest distribution possible and is "cautiously optimistic" that he will have deals soon, maybe even before launch. When ESPN2 was launching, he recalls, six of the top 10 MSOs signed up on launch day. "So this is par for the course. I wish it was otherwise."

The National Basketball Association's channel, NBATV, recently signed up Cablevision, Time Warner Cable and Cox Communications, where it will likely be offered on a sports tier. It's also on DirecTV and EchoStar's Dish Network.

By carrying NFL Network, Bornstein says, operators will get a relationship with the league, video-on-demand and high-definition content. "All of these are very important to driving [operators'] business," he told reporters last week. Several operators declined to comment on the network because of ongoing negotiations.

What cable operators really want is a piece of the NFL's coveted out-of-market package, which gives, say, an ex-Chicagoan living in New York a chance to see every Bears game. DirecTV has it exclusively right now, but, in two years, the NFL's TV deal comes up, and cable operators will get a shot at a piece.

Meanwhile, the NFL Network's programming plans are crystallizing. On weeknights at 8 p.m. ET, former ESPN star Rich Eisen will host football-news show NFL Total Access. On the show, 13 pro players, including San Diego Chargers' Doug Flutie and New York Giants' Dhani Jones, will contribute as correspondents.

But the channel won't be a shill for the league, Eisen says. Fans "can smell a rat a mile away and anything that they think is a dog-and-pony act or a put-on ... is just not going to succeed." The channel will cover football "fairly, accurately and in a high-class way."

The league's production arm, NFL Films, will provide much of the channel's programming. NFL Network will not carry regular-season or postseason games but will air some preseason contests. Bornstein doesn't expect the channel to go after a piece of the league's next TV deal.