Congress questions NFL Network plan to air live games

Updated: November 14, 2006, 8:03 PM ET
Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- The NFL is about to start airing live regular-season games on its own network, and that has Congress a bit curious.

"We're intrigued, to put it mildly, what the NFL has in mind," Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said Tuesday at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Specter grilled NFL executive vice president and general counsel Jeffrey Pash during the 90-minute hearing on sports programming. The hearing focused on how live games on the NFL Network could affect cable and satellite rates and whether the games raise any antitrust issues in connection with the Sports Broadcasting Act.

The NFL Network will air eight live games this season, starting Thanksgiving night when the Denver Broncos play the Kansas City Chiefs. Some broadcast companies, including Time Warner, have balked at paying the higher fee the league is charging to carry the network because of the games.

Time Warner chief operating officer Landel Hobbs testified that the NFL Network's rates are "out of whack" when compared to viewership ratings.

Pash responded that the NFL Network has indeed increased its fees, but he cited the popularity of the league's product as justification. He said other NFL Network carriers -- including DirecTV, EchoStar, Comcast and Cox -- have not passed along the price increase to their customers. However, Comcast wants to start offering the network as part of a premium sports-tier package, which has sparked a legal challenge from the NFL.

Pash also noted the NFL is the only major pro sports league that broadcasts all of its games on free, over-the-air television in participants' local markets. The NFL Network games will be aired by local stations in the participating teams' markets, using the same arrangement that exists with ESPN telecasts on Monday nights.

"There's been a mass migration away from broadcast television with one exception -- the NFL -- and we still have every game on broadcast television," Pash said.

Pash said the NFL Network's offerings do not run afoul of antitrust laws because they are "pro-competitive" and expand choices for consumers. As for Specter's concern about "what the NFL has in mind" for the future, Pash said it will be several years before there can be another significant change in how games are broadcast.

"For the next six years we've got contracts with the broadcast networks," Pash said. "We've got a contract with ESPN that goes out eight, so it's not like we're going to do this, this week, and next week we're going to do three times as much. This is where we are for the foreseeable future. We'll see if it works or not. We'll see if there's consumer acceptance. We'll see if there's consumer response. If these games don't get wide distribution, if they don't get good ratings, ratings commensurate with what our other games get, if they don't get strong advertiser support, we'll have to look at an alternative."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press