Stations Cry Foul Over NFL Play

When the National Football League released this past Saturday’s game between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants to a national audience, fans rejoiced. But the decision left stations in the team’s hometowns crying foul.

The game was originally part of the NFL Network’s eight-game regular season lineup, a scenario that left a portion of the national television audience unable to watch one of the most highly anticipated regular-season NFL games in history. Under the original plan, the NFL Network would have carried the game and given the feed for the local markets to Hearst-Argyle Television’s ABC affiliates WCVB Boston and WMUR Manchester, N.H., and Fox Television’s WWOR New York.

But when the feed was also given to NBC and CBS, it was not under the condition that those networks would black it out in the Boston and New York regions, and that raised the ire of the Hearst and Fox stations.

While station management was not available for comment, Fox Television released a statement protesting the decision. “The NFL is in clear violation of their agreement with WWOR-My9,” the statement read. “We fully expect the league to honor their commitment to My 9 as the exclusive free over-the-air broadcaster for Saturday’s telecast of the New England Patriots at New York Giants game.”

The NFL Network is carried by the satellite video providers and scores of smaller cable systems, but it has engaged in a bruising battle with some of the country’s largest cable operators, including Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable, to gain carriage on basic tiers. The fight over carriage fees has resulted in Comcast shelving the network on a digital sports tier, while Time Warner Cable does not carry it at all.

With the Patriots on the verge of being just the second team in league history to go undefeated, and some of its players in a position to set individual records, the tension of the situation between the network and the cable operators grew as the game drew closer.

“The NFL is a savvy marketer,” says Brad Adgate, Senior VP and Director of Research at Horizon Media, who says the league got a taste of what the public backlash could be following the mid-season showdown between the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys. “I think they realized this would be a potential black eye for the league.”

The public outcry was accompanied by some prodding from politicians for the league and the holdout cable companies to remedy the situation. After the Patriots beat the Miami Dolphins on Dec. 23, ensuring that they would play for an undefeated season against the Giants in Saturday primetime, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) sent a letter to the NFL threatening to introduce the effects of premium sports channels on consumers as a subject for the Senate Commerce Committee if the game were not nationally televised. The NFL acquiesced and granted both NBC and CBS the rights to carry the NFL Network feed.

The move was good news for fans outside the local markets, but bad news for stations that were scheduled to carry the game within those markets. At issue was the fact that the Boston-area and New York stations had participated in a bidding process to gain exclusive broadcast rights in those markets, and had sold advertising based on those rights.

Hearst-Argyle station management was negotiating with the NFL through the end of the day Friday and was not available for comment. WCVB’s President and General Manager Bill Fine released a statement that said, “We are having private and confidential conversations with the NFL and are very hopeful that this unfortunate situation can be worked out to our satisfaction, in light of the fact we do have a valid contract for exclusive broadcast rights to the Patriots vs. Giants game in the Boston market.”

Seth Palansky, a spokesman for the NFL Network, said that going wide with the broadcast was a business decision, based on the magnitude of the game and the fact that the league could not make any progress with the holdout cable operators. “The commissioner made a decision to do what’s best for the fans,” Palansky said, “and all these other issues are unintended consequences of the initial decision.”