NFL Pitches Baseball-Style Arbitration

Even as a group of legislators was asking FCC Chairman Kevin Martin to impose some kind of arbitration mechanism on cable program carriage disputes--citing The NFL Network and cable operators Comcast and Time Warner specifically--NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was proposing the same thing to Time Warner Chairman Glenn Britt. Britt responded that the company wasn't interested, though he had some suggestions of his own.

 While Comcast already carries the network on a sports tier, and makes that point to those characterizing the it as a carriage dispute, Time Warner does not carry the network.

 In a letter to Glenn Britt (reprinted below), Goodell says he is willing to submit immediately to baseball-style arbitration, and to immediately allow the network to be carried on all Time Warner systems even before that happens. "Because we recognize that final-offer arbitration pursuant to the attached proposal will take time," he said, "we will allow you to provide NFL Network to all Time Warner customers immediately upon your written agreement to participate in the arbitration process and to be bound by its result." 

 That would allow Time Warner customers to see the Dec. 29 game between the New England Patriots and New York Giants. The fact that the game is not on Time Warner, the nation's second largest cable system, and on a sports tier rather than a more widely viewed basic tier on Comcast, has led a number of legislators, led by Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) to gently, or not so gently, prod the companies to find a way to let viewers see that game.

Time Warner cable Director of Communications Maureen Huff said that it wasn't keen on negotiating in the press or via Capitol Hill, and again suggested the NFL move the Patriots game to broadcast TV it it wanted to make sure a lot of people saw the game.

Over the years we've been able to successfully reach agreements with hundreds of programming networks without the use of arbitration," said Huff.

"We continue to believe that the best way to achieve results is to privately seek a resolution and not attempt to negotiate through the press or elected officials. We already have several standing offers for carriage of NFLN, and we remain willing to meet with Mr. Goodell and his associates at any point to try to reach an agreement that benefits both companies and our customers.

"In the interim, we strongly urge the NFL to consider moving the Patriots-Giants game to a broadcast network to ensure the broadest possible distribution of this potentially historic game for fans."

In a letter responding to the proposal late Thursday, Britt said that Time Warner was willing to talk about a video-on-demand deal for The NFL Network's eight-game package, or a digital freeview of the Patriots-Giants game Dec. 29, but suggested no interest in submitting to arbitration.

"We continue to believe that the best way to achieve results is to privately seek a resolution and not attempt to negotiate through the press or elected officials," he said, pointing out that the cable operator had been able to reach hundreds of agreements with programming networks without the use of arbitration.

Britt suggested that the NFL could put the game on a broadcast network if it wanted to insure that the greatest number of people could watch the game.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.