NFL Net, Dish on same side

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Dish Network and the NFL Network have settled their litigation and reached a multiyear agreement for ongoing carriage of the network by the satellite TV provider.

The deal was much-needed good news for the 5-year-old NFL Network, which is available in 42 million homes but looks set to go off Comcast-owned cable systems May 1.

A dispute between the NFL and cable giant Comcast is based on issues that also have kept No. 2 U.S. cable operator Time Warner Cable from offering the NFL Network and led to the cabler's decision a few years ago to drop-kick the channel from more than 1 million homes in major TV markets where it had acquired systems from Comcast and the former Adelphia Communications.

The NFL Network's settlement with Dish came ahead of FCC hearings on the Comcast-NFL Network programming dispute, which are scheduled to begin Tuesday. A decision could take several months, though, and each side can appeal the FCC ruling in federal court.

Comcast wants to offer the NFL Network on its digital sports tier, where it carries the Tennis Channel, NBA and NHL content, soccer and the like. Consumers pay $5-$7 extra a month for that tier, and sometimes more. The NFL Network argues it should be available on basic cable tiers because of its popularity and ratings and has said it wants the same treatment as Comcast's Golf Channel and Versus as well as the MLB Network, in which the cable giant and other pay TV providers have a stake.

But Comcast and Time Warner Cable have argued that the high price of the NFL Network and its lack of year-round games make it perfect for a sports tier. They said they would have to raise subscriber fees further otherwise.

The NFL Network televises eight regular-season games and some during the preseason. It also features NFL Films content, coverage of the NFL Draft and specials.

Under its new carriage arrangement, the NFL Network will be part of Dish's Classic Silver 200 programming package, where it has been for more than a year after originally being offered in the most-popular Dish 100 package. Financial terms and other details weren't provided.

Dish's dispute with the network started over a simulcast of a New England Patriots-New York Giants game in December 2007 on broadcast networks. Dish said a contract provision allowed it to drop the NFL Network to the lower-level program package, but the channel disagreed.

"We are very pleased that our NFL Network will continue to be distributed in millions of homes on Dish Network," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Friday.

An NFL Network spokesman declined comment on the Comcast situation.

On its Web site, the league says that Comcast moved the NFL Network to a sports tier and charged the additional monthly premium, which should end the channel's run on Comcast systems as of May 1. It then mentions that more than 300 cable TV and telco providers offer the network, including DirecTV, Dish, Verizon FiOS, AT&T U-Verse and Cox Communications.

"We have offered to carry the NFL Network under the terms of our current affiliation agreement while the litigation that the NFL brought against Comcast continues, but the NFL has not accepted our offer," Comcast said. "Our proposed extension is in the best interest of our customers and NFL fans. … Because the NFL has not accepted our offer, we are required by regulations to notify our customers of the possibility that the NFL may terminate Comcast's right to carry the network." (partialdiff)
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