Saturday's game given three-network telecast

Bowing to pressure from Washington, the NFL Network has signed CBS and NBC to carry an unprecedented three-net telecast of Saturday’s primetime game in which the undefeated New England Patriots take on the New York Giants.

A number of U.S. senators and representatives had publicly excoriated the National Football League over the past few weeks for its plans to schedule the game exclusively on its own NFL Network, which would reach only about 43 million cable and satellite homes. The game is expected to be a huge ratings draw because the Patriots could become the first NFL team to go through an entire regular season without a loss since the Miami Dolphins went 14-0 in 1972. (The league expanded the schedule to 16 games in 1978, so the Patriots will have extra bragging rights.)

The addition of the broadcast outlets will be a bonanza for advertisers, whose spots will run in 60 million more homes — at no additional charge — with the O&Os and affiliates of CBS and NBC added to the national footprint, said Neal Pilson, the TV sports consultant and former president of CBS Sports.

CBS and NBC affiliates will get 18 30-second spots in the game, similar to the amount of commercial time that NFL Network makes available to all cable systems that pick up the channel.

The pressure is now off Time Warner Cable, Charter, Cablevision and other cable operators that have resisted cutting a deal for the pricey NFL net since it bowed four years ago.

The naysaying cable operators insist the NFL Network is asking for too much money in license fees for a program service that gets only eight regular-season NFL games a year. These operators want to put the NFL net on a digital sports tier, which could cost their customers an extra monthly fee. That fee would be shared with the NFL Network.

The NFL Network has refused that offer because sports tiers reach only a small percentage of a cable system’s subscribers. The net is working to get the FCC to force the cable operators to agree to baseball-type contractual arbitration (each side puts forward its best proposal and the commission chooses one of the two, with no haggling) in order to get the network cleared in 20 million-plus more cable TV households.

“A few of the biggest cable operators have refused to negotiate,” said Steve Bornstein, prexy-chief exec of the NFL Network, in a statement. He added the net features programming that should not be “relegated to a poorly promoted, pay-extra sports tier that takes advantage of our fans’ passion for the NFL.”

An NFL Network spokesman said the league deserves credit for making the big game available to all viewers with a TV set, despite the fact that the decision gives the upper hand in future negotiations to Time Warner and the other cable holdouts.

If the FCC regards the NFL decision as magnanimous, the commission may be willing to agree to the league’s petition to drag the cable ops to the bargaining table, where they’ll be greeted with government-imposed arbitration.

CBS and NBC will carry the NFL Network feed of the game, featuring Bryant Gumbel on play by play and Chris Collinsworth as analyst.

The NFL said the three-network Saturday simulcast is a first. The most similar such arrangement was for Super Bowl I in 1967, when CBS and NBC both televised the game because it represented the first meeting of the champions of the just-merged National Football League and American Football League.

Even though the NFL Network reaches only about 40% of U.S. homes, the seven primetime games through Dec. 22 have averaged 4.6 million viewers, up 48% vs. the same period last year.

Three of the immediate losers in the wake of the CBS-NBC simulcast are WCVB, the ABC affiliate in Boston; WWOR, the MyNetwork outlet in New York; and WMUR, the ABC affil in Manchester, N.Y.

Before NFL Network welcomed CBS and NBC as partners in the Patriots-Giants game, those three stations had broadcast exclusivity thanks to the NFL rule that allows a local station to carry the games of its local team when either ESPN or the NFL net has the national rights.

The three stations had already sold their local ad time to the game at hugely inflated rates. But against their will, they’ll have to share the game with the NBC and CBS stations in their markets.

WWOR, WCVB and WMUR will now go back to the NFL and renegotiate their contracts, which called for the stations to pony up big license fees for broadcast exclusivity.

“The NFL is in clear violation of their agreement,” WWOR said in a statement. “We fully expect the league to honor their commitment” to the station as “the exclusive, free over-the-air broadcaster.”

Spokeswomen for Gotham stations WCBS and WNBC said both will carry the game.

In Boston, Bill Fine, prexy-general manager of WCVB, said the station “is now awaiting word as to whether or not the NFL will abide by their contract with WCVB.”

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