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NFL network wooing cablers

Company willing to sell equity stakes

The National Football League is so eager to get major cable operators such as Comcast and Time Warner to carry its NFL Network that it is willing to sell equity stakes in the channel in exchange for carriage deals.

“We’re willing to be flexible in the negotiations,” said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in a conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon about the standoff between the league and major cable operators.

The NFL’s flexibility could extend, he said, even to the license fee it charges for carrying the cabler. Comcast, Time Warner, Charter, Cablevision and other naysayers insist it’s too pricey for a program service that carries only eight live regular-season NFL games each year. (NFL Network’s rate card calls for a monthly fee of about 70¢ a subscriber, which would make it one of the costliest nets on the cable operators’ expense sheet.)

Goodell’s frustration at the lack of progress in the on-off talks with cable ops since NFL Network opened for business four years ago has also caused him to petition the FCC to force a carriage deal through binding arbitration.

“Baseball-type arbitration is a mechanism that already exists to resolve commercial disputes,” he said.

Asking the government to intervene was necessary, Goodell said, because no talks are going on right now between the NFL and cable operators.

“I’m not optimistic because we’re not dealing with a level playing field,” Goodell said.

By that, Goodell means that the cable ops give priority to networks they own, putting them on the widest-circulated expanded-basic service while insisting that the NFL Network be relegated to a digital sports tier.

These tiers draw very few subscribers because they’re available only for an extra $5-$8 a month, he said, and are not promoted by the cable ops.

In a statement responding to Goodell’s comments, Comcast said, “The vast majority of our customers have elected not to receive NFL Network.”

Placing the net on a separately priced sports tier means “viewers who want to watch the channel will be able to see it, while others who prefer not to receive it will not be forced to pay,” said the statement from Comcast exec VP David Cohen.

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