NFL Net wants a referee

Arbitration sought in Time Warner Cable tiff

NEW YORK -- The  carriage dispute between the NFL Network and Time Warner Cable took another turn Thursday, with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell inviting the cable operator to submit its case to binding arbitration.

“I am now reaching out to you directly with a new and specific proposal to resolve our impasse in a way that will put the interest of our fans, and your customers, first,” Goodell wrote in a letter addressed to Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt.

The arbitrator would determine the carriage price as well as the tier on which the network would reside, whether on expanded basic or a digital-sports tier. According to NFL executives, the hearing would be conducted in so-called “baseball” style —that is, each side would present its case, and the third-party arbitrator would rule in favor of one or the other, without any possibility for splitting the difference.

Time Warner Cable had not responded to the invitation by late Thursday, and given the contentious nature of past talks it seemed unlikely to take up the network on its challenge.

But coming just nine days before a potentially historic game on the network —the New England Patriots could be gunning for a perfect season when they play the New York Giants on Dec. 29 —the move was well-timed to stir public sentiment, or at least provide cover for the network if fans were upset about not being able to see the game.

The NFL Network and Time Warner Cable have been involved in a game of chicken for the past two years, with each side saying the other is depriving fans of games because of unreasonable carriage demands.

NFL Network spokesman Seth Palansky said the decision to go to arbitration wasn’t motivated by publicity or even a belief that the NFL would win the case. “It’s risky,” he said. “We’re leaving our fate and the future of our business in the hands of one human being.

He added: “But what choice do we have? We’re about to complete the second year of carrying live games, and the only thing we can do is try to find a fan-focused compromise.”

Time Warner Cable has said that it believes the NFL Network’s asking price is too high considering it has the rights to just a handful of live games. For its part, the NFL Network has protested the cable operator’s desire to put the net on a digital sports tier. Comcast and the network are in litigation over a similar decision by that operator.

Previous carriage disputes — including a disagreement between the New York Yankees’ YES Network and Cablevision — were decided when the sides agreed to take their case to an arbitrator.
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