Jones sees content as key to NFL Net growth

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CHICAGO -- The National Football League remains committed to the growth of its 24-hour football television network, including plans to possibly increase the number of regular season games and non-league content it carries, a leading team owner said Monday.

The NFL Network, embroiled in disputes with three of the largest U.S. cable television providers, remains a linchpin to growth plans for the American sports league, Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys and chairman of the NFL Network committee, told Reuters.

"As an ownership group, all 32, we're so unified in our basic commitment to the network,' he said in a telephone interview. "It's so important to our future."

The four-year-old network, which some analysts have said could eventually challenge Walt Disney Co's ESPN sports channel, has 35 million subscribers. But it is not carried by Time Warner Cable Inc and Cablevision Systems Corp. due to disagreements over per-customer fees.

The network's subscriber total is down from 41 million last year as Comcast Corp. , the largest cable TV operator, decided in March to offer the network as a premium sports tier for an extra cost. That resulted in a decline of about 8 million subscribers.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told Reuters last year the league was targeting a subscriber total of more than 50 million, possibly topping 60 million, by late 2007.

The three cable companies involved in the disputes have said the NFL is asking for too high a per-subscriber fee for a network offering only eight NFL regular season games per season. About 240 cable, satellite and telecommunications providers carry the network, which Jones called profitable.

Goodell said he cut off talks with Comcast in August. Jones said there has been no progress since then.

"It's not the right read to say that talks are stalled. There's no talk," he said.

Jones said it isn't likely customers of Comcast, Time Warner or Cablevision will be able to view the NFL Network on basic cable this season.

For the past year, the NFL has encouraged fans at those cable operators to cancel service and switch to satellite or telecom providers that carry the league network.

However, NFL owners also have stepped up lobbying efforts with federal regulators, asking the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to assign an arbitrator to settle the disputes. The cable companies are fighting that move.

The NFL also has sued Comcast, arguing the network's shift to a premium tier violates its contract with the league.

"We know how interested they are in our content," Jones said. "They just want it on their terms to help build an asset. Our fans don't deserve to be building equity for a distribution company."

Meanwhile, the NFL is pushing to increase non-NFL content on the NFL Network, including games from such other professional leagues as Arena Football League. The network already carries several college football bowl games, and this year aired several high school games and some smaller regular-season college football games.

"The NFL, because of its visibility and credibility, will attract other football content. It is in their best interest to be on the NFL channel alongside a lot of our programming," said Jones, who added that the NFL will pursue broadcast rights deals with college conferences.

TV deals that run through the 2011 season do not allow the league to increase the number of regular-season NFL games aired on the network from the current eight, Jones said. He said negotiating with all the players before then to allow more games is a possibility, but no such talks are planned.

He also said there are no plans to branch out beyond football-related content.

"I don't see it. That's not a hedge," he said. "We like the idea of 24-7 football."
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