Sources: NFL, Comcast Close To Resolving NFL Network Carriage Dispute

The NFL and Comcast are close to resolving their long-standing dispute over carriage of the NFL Network.

That's according to sources familiar with the discussions. An announcement is possible as soon as this week.

That deal, if done, would also almost certainly resolve a carriage complaint currently being decided by an FCC administrative law judge, as well as a suit filed in New York State Supreme Court.

The NFL filed the case in a contract dispute over Comcast's tiering of the channel there.

The NFL network had no official comment beyond referring to an April 30 announcement that they were in productive discussions. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was said to be actively participating in the discussions. A Comcast spokesperson was unavailable at press time.

The NFL's carriage deal ran out April 30, but after tough talk from both sides and warnings that the channel was going dark, Comcast agreed to keep it on and the sides continued to talk.

The expiration of the carriage contract coincided with an ongoing NFL program carriage complaint that was adjudicated last month at the FCC.

The NFL has alleged that Comcast moved the channel to a sports tier to favor its own sports channels--The Golf
Channel and Versus, which it carries on the more highly-viewed basic digital tier--and in retaliation for the NFL
keeping the right to a package of NFL games rather than selling it to Comcast, which wanted to build its Versus
network into a rival to ESPN.

Comcast has countered that the issue is the price of the channel. At the FCC hearing, Comcast Chairman Brian Roberts argued that the move of the network to a sports tier was not about retaliation or favoring affiliated networks but about money--namely, $50 million a year and growing. That is how much the cable operator saves in affiliate fees by carrying the net on the sports tier, where fewer subs means lower affiliate fees.

Roberts said that Comcast would be willing to move the channel off the sports tier if the NFL would agree to lower the channel's per-sub fees from the current 70 cents or so to the approximately 25 cents Golf Channel and Versus command.

Cable has taken much criticism in Washington for the size of its bills, including from regulators--notably former FCC Chairman Kevin Martin--legislators--notably former Senate Commerce Chairman John McCain--and public interest groups. At the same time, sports has been labeled must-have programming by the FCC, with operators pressured to make sure the big game or hometown team gets to viewers/constituents/consumers.

Sports Illustrated's Peter King reported Sunday that the two sides were close to a deal.

A deal with the nation's largest cable operator could potentially spur agreements with other major MSO's not carrying the channel at all, including Time Warner, Cablevision, and Brighthouse.

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.