NFL Network spars with Time Warner over rights

It’s only one regular-season game, but the limited availability of the Dec. 29 contest between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants continues to generate headlines beyond the sports pages.

The latest conflict over the game — which could see the Patriots become the first unbeaten team over a full season since the Miami Dolphins in 1972 — featured an exchange of letters on Thursday afternoon between NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Glenn Britt, prexy-CEO of Time Warner Cable.

TW Cable has not managed to reach an agreement with the 4-year-old NFL Network, which has exclusive rights to the game. The letter from Goodell urged Britt to consider a proposal for voluntary arbitration of the contractual deadlock in which “a neutral third party” would study the offers of both sides and choose one or the other.

Goodell basically wants Time Warner Cable to buy the NFL Network for its digital-basic service, which would make the channel available to all TW subscribers with a digital box. The license fee the NFL net is seeking would make it one of TW Cable’s 10 most expensive ad-supported channels.

Time Warner Cable insists that the NFL net is a niche channel and thus should be placed on a digital sports tier, which would cost TW customers an extra monthly fee on top of the stipend they pay for the digital-cable box. In this scenario, instead of shelling out a license fee to NFL Network, TW would share the revenues from the sports tier.

Tiers are unacceptable to the NFL net because they reach only a small portion of the subscriber base of most cable systems, putting a crimp on the channel’s advertising revenue.

Late Thursday, Britt rejected the arbitration idea in his response to Goodell’s letter. If the NFL is concerned that tens of millions of fans won’t be able to see the “potentially historic” Patriots-Giants game, Britt suggested that the NFL either funnel it to a broadcast network or distribute it to cable as a one-shot “freeview” telecast on a digital-cable channel.

Separately, two U.S. senators, Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), have written a letter to Goodell with the threat that if the NFL doesn’t broaden the reach of the game beyond the NFL Network, which gets into only 42.9 million cable and satellite homes, the Senate judiciary committee may hold hearings on whether the NFL’s antitrust exemption should be repealed.

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