NFL Network Gets NFL Games

NFL Network has tackled Comcast Corp.

The pro-football league's in-house service was awarded an eight-game, late-season primetime package, beginning with the 2006 season on Thanksgiving night. The package runs concurrent with the six-year pacts the league renewed through the 2011-12 season with Sunday-afternoon carriers CBS and Fox.

Comcast had been pitching the National Football League hard for the Thursday/Saturday package, looking it as gambit to grow and bring more value to its OLN property, which inked a two-season rights deal this past summer for the National Hockey League. Sources said Comcast's bid for the "run-up to the playoffs package" was somewhere between $400 million-$500 million.

Instead, two-year-old NFL Network -- which has been offering year-round league programming, including preseason fare -- will use the eight regular-season contests as a lever to add distribution.

Moreover, beginning with next season, NFL Network will wield another high-profile first: full replays of the previous weekend's games, according to sources familiar with the NFL's new TV contracts.

Despite holes in its distribution roster with Time Warner Cable, Charter Communications Inc. (which pulled the service last year) and Cablevision Systems Corp., NFL Network counts some 40 million subscribers.

According to sources, Comcast received word Friday that it would not get the package. MSO officials could not be reached for comment.

During the course of negotiations, the NFL, according to sources familiar with the proceedings, considered a number of options, including the creation of a multisport network and a new network. Expressions of interest over the months also came from News Corp., ESPN, Turner Sports and NBC Universal.

“After discussing this new package of games with many potential partners, we decided that it would be best presented on our own, high-quality NFL Network, which has developed so rapidly that the time had come to add live regular-season games to the programming,” NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said in a prepared statement. “In the end, we wanted these games on our network, which is devoted 24/7 to the sport of football, and not on a multisport network.”

A separate digital-rights package was not part of the recently concluded negotiation, according to league sources.

The deal sets the NFL's linear TV lineup well into the next decade. In November 2004, Fox and CBS extended their National Football Conference and American Football Conference packages through the 2011-12 season at some $4.3 billion and $3.7 billion, respectively.

Last April, ESPN displaced sister service ABC as the Monday Night Football carrier with an eight-year pact valued at $8.8 billion, while NBC returned to the NFL lineup, taking ESPN's place on Sunday nights via a six-year, $3.6 billion pact.

Tagliabue announced Saturday that the primetime package will kick off on Thanksgiving night, Nov. 23, as the nightcap of a Turkey Day tripleheader. It was carved up from games previously held by CBS and Fox, which, in previous campaigns, had aired a number of Saturday games late in the season.

Despite published reports indicating that the first contest will pit the Washington Redskins at the Dallas Cowboys, league officials said the 2006 schedule has not yet been configured.

NFL Network will make all of its games available on free, over-the-air television in the participating team markets, according to officials.