NFL blackout

Football network’s dispute with cable companies hits the fans

Going into Super Bowl weekend, R.F. Wright wonders if he’ll get to see all the Pittsburgh Steelers games he should next season.

Going into Super Bowl weekend, R.F. Wright wonders if he’ll get to see all the Pittsburgh Steelers games he should next season.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Every Sunday, Sunday night and Monday night during the season, Sacramento resident R.F. Wright finds himself on his couch, watching pro football on TV.

Occasionally the type of beer or whose couch he’s sitting on might change, but he doesn’t miss a game—especially when his favorite team, the Pittsburg Steelers, is playing.

Throughout the season he caught some great and not-so-great Steelers’ games.

“Steelers vs. Jacksonville, if they would of won that I would have been one happy guy,” he said. “If they would have just pulled it off, even if they lost the next game, it would have been great.”

There probably were other great Steelers games, but Wright couldn’t see them because his cable-television provider, Comcast, does not include the NFL Network with his regular service.

“Because I didn’t get to have it, I didn’t even bother looking in the guide. But I knew I could of seen anything, seen some Steelers games I would have liked to watch,” he said.

And while he couldn’t see the battle between the Steelers and the New Orleans Saints earlier this year, there’s a bigger battle happening in front of the public eye between NFL Network and broadcasting companies.

After the launch of the NFL Network in 2003, some companies like Direct TV and Dish Network added it to their regular package; others refused to include it or refused to include it—without an extra cost.

NFL Network communications director Seth Palansky said they’re currently in litigation with several companies because the network believes it should be accessed by everyone.

“We’re in litigation with Comcast. We think we have a right to be available to everyone and we don’t think they have a right to put us in a pay-extra tier,” Palansky said. “Let the courts interpret it.”

Andrew Johnson, Comcast California Bay Area vice president of communications, said the reason the cable provider offers NFL Network as a premium-tier option is because they didn’t want to charge non-NFL fans extra for the channel—a channel that only carries a limited amount of games during the football season.

“NFL network offers eight games during the season, the other 350 days there’s nothing on except NFL profiles and news,” said Johnson. “Eight games are what they offer this year and eight games are what they’ll offer next year.”

Instead of increasing fees for all their customers, Johnson said the company decided to charge diehard NFL fans an extra $3 to $5 a month to see the channel.

“It’s the best and fair solution to avoid the NFL 52-week surcharge over six weeks of actual game play,” he said.

A 2007 New York Supreme Court ruling already allows Comcast to provide the channel at an extra cost. The NFL Network is currently appealing that decision. And the network has gone on the offense, urging fans to call Comcast or other cable companies, send letters to politicians, and, if necessary, switch to a service like Direct TV that does not charge a premium for NFL Network.

Comcast has taken notice.

“Yes, we know, we know,” Johnson said. “They have an e-mail campaign; they launched a lot of Web sites asking customers to call and ask us to change our position. They’re trying to get customers to encourage Comcast and make everyone pay for it—all after the New York Supreme Court case.”

Johnson says Comcast considers the case closed despite the NFL Network’s appeal and its litigation against other companies, including Time Warner Cable. But Palansky believes NFL Network is still in the game and the cable networks eventually will buckle to public pressure.

In the meantime, fans like Wright wait. He and billions of others will have no problem seeing the last pro-football game of the year, the Super Bowl, of course, but it remains unclear whether the issue will be resolved by the start of next season.

So why doesn’t Wright just pay extra to watch his precious Steelers?

“I was going to pay to pick and choose the games I wanted, but when I went online and tried to buy it, I couldn’t order it,” he said. “They’re probably so backed up with orders.”

Like hopes for Wright’s team, maybe next year.

“For me, I wouldn’t mind to pay something to see my Steelers every week, but I don’t think it’s fair that Comcast gets a bit of it.”