League backs up NFL Net

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NFL commissioner Roger Goodell reaffirmed Thursday night the league's commitment to the NFL Network after a rough and tumble year on the distribution side.

"We will make the NFL Network a success," Goodell told media buyers and advertisers at the channel's third annual upfront presentation. The upfront began on an up note with an homage to the hometown Super Bowl champion New York Giants.

The league-owned channel launched with a flourish in 2003 and two seasons ago began a late-season primetime package that the league hoped would boost distribution among holdouts Time Warner Cable, Charter and Cablevision. Instead, it has fallen from 42 million home to an estimated 32 million after legal battles with Comcast and EchoStar.

Network execs noted the distribution challenges but said that NFL Network ratings nonetheless rose double digits in key demos during the regular season and then continued with double-digit increases in the months after the Super Bowl.

Goodell noted that the league was committed to getting more distribution for the channel. But it is finding rough sledding, with execs acknowledging no further talks with Time Warner Cable, for instance, and a looming battle at the FCC with Comcast.

NFL Network CEO Steve Bornstein said after the presentation that trading an equity stake wasn't the preferred means of gaining distribution but didn't give a definitive no. Baseball's MLB Channel, which launches next year, will be in nearly 50 million homes after swapping distribution for an equity stake.

But Bornstein said the channel is doing well editorially.

"We've hit a place where people are satisfied with our product and want more of it," he said.

Meanwhile, there is no word about the fate of "Inside the NFL," the long-running weekly football series that left HBO in February. Bornstein said the NFL was in discussions with several networks about bringing back the popular but expensive series. He said HBO wasn't back in the hunt.

"I'm optimistic that we'll find the proper place for it," Bornstein said.
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