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Senators Press NFL on Access to Games

A group of U.S. senators is pressuring the National Football League into giving local broadcast TV viewers greater access to games shown on the league-owned NFL Network, a channel carried by many but not all cable and satellite TV providers.

Every game aired on NFL Network, which kicks off its eight-game primetime slate on Nov. 6, when the Cleveland Browns visit the Denver Broncos at 8 p.m. (ET), can be seen on free TV in the home markets of the two teams on the field, but the rest of the country needs access to the cable channel.

In a letter last Tuesday to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, the senators complained that the NFL’s local-market policy was too narrow and wrongly excluded fans of teams with a regional following.

The letter explained that fans without access to NFL Network — Time Warner Cable, the second-largest cable company, does not distribute the channel — can’t watch their local team in action.

“The NFL’s application of its policy does nothing for NFL fans in Burlington, Vermont, Hartford, Connecticut, or Providence, Rhode Island, which the NFL does not consider to be part of the home market of the New England Patriots,” the letter said.

The letter was spearheaded by Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and ranking member Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).

The other signatories were Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), Michael Enzi (R-Wyo.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), John Thune (R-S.D.), and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.).

The NFL released a statement but didn’t address the lawmakers’ point about its definition of local markets. Instead, the league pointed a finger at cable operators that have either refused to carry the channel or require customers to pay an additional fee.

“The goal of our NFL Network games is to show them to a national audience. However, that goal has been undercut by several of the largest cable operators that are discriminating against our network by either refusing to carry it or placing it on a much more costly tier than the sports networks that the cable operators themselves own,” the league’s statement said.

The letter noted that the NFL enjoys an exemption from anti-trust laws that allows the league to negotiate television contracts for all NFL teams. The pooling of rights exemption is contained in the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961.

“Ultimately, it may be for the courts to determine whether the NFL member teams are using the NFL Network to restrict the output of game programming in a manner that violates the antitrust laws,” the senators wrote.

The Senate Judiciary Committee oversees the Justice Department’s enforcement of the antitrust laws.

“In the meantime,” the letter added, “we strongly encourage you to take prompt action that will ensure fans in every market receive the benefit of this over-the-air policy when their closest NFL teams, or the teams with which their areas have been historically aligned, are playing in games telecast nationally on the NFL Network.”