Game of week: NFL vs. Senate panel


WASHINGTON -- The NFL played defense Tuesday before a Senate committee investigating the television policies of the nation's premier sports league.

At issue are several deals the NFL has made or is attempting to make that either grant exclusivity to one carrier or another or dictate the tier on which cable operators can place pro football programming.

NFL executive vp Jeffrey Pash told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the league's primary desire is to get its games on more viewers' TV sets by keeping a majority of its games on broadcast TV.

"The centerpiece of the NFL's television policy is free, over-the-air broadcasting of NFL games," Pash told the committee. "The best way to do so has been and continues to be through broadcast television."

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., is concerned that new TV packages like the one for the league's Thursday and Saturday package of games on the NFL Network will drive up cable prices. He also expressed concern over the NFL's decision to limit its Sunday Ticket package to satellite TV.

Specter accused the NFL of anti-competitive practices because it refused a to take a bid from Comcast for the right to carry the programming. Comcast is headquartered in Philadelphia.

"Why is Sunday Ticket not available by competitive bidding?" Specter asked. "I'm told the NFL told Comcast it wouldn't take a bid from them."

Specter compared America's love for sports programing to an addict's love for a drug.

"No doubt America has a love affair with professional sports," he said. "It could be called an addiction."

Pash told the lawmaker that the NFL did not want to force viewers to go cold turkey but that the league refused to allow cable companies to get the package because cable operators refused to agree to allow local broadcasters to air the games at the same time.

"The primary means of the telecast is free, over-the-air broadcasting," he said. "We do not want to have Sunday Ticket undermine that."

The NFL and Comcast are involved in a lawsuit over Comcast's desire to put the NFL Network on its little-watched sports tier. The NFL contends that that move would violate its current contract with Comcast.

Specter believes that by fighting to keep the NFL Network and other pro football programming on the most-watched cable tiers, the league is driving up the cost of those tiers for customers who don't care about football.

"They have to pay the fare whether or not they want the coverage," he said.

Pash disputes that notion.

"I don't think the NFL Network and an increase in prices go hand in hand," he said, adding that DirecTV, EchoStar, Cox Cable and Comcast didn't increase their fees when they picked up the channel.

While no Comcast executive testified Tuesday, Time Warner Cable chief operating officer Landel Hobbs did. TWC also has fought with the NFL over the placement of the NFL Network.

"Cable companies are often saddled with obligations not borne by satellite operators," Hobbs said. "Not only should additional or new obligations be avoided, but policymakers should fully examine whether this disparate regulatory treatment is warranted and how it contributes to any problems in the sports and video marketplaces."

The exclusive contract with satellite TV operators DirecTV and EchoStar has been a sore point with the cable industry for years. While a cable operator must provide satellite TV companies with programming generated by itself or a subsidiary under the nation's program-access law, the reverse is not true. The program-access law is largely considered one of the main reasons the satellite TV industry exists.

"(NFL Sunday Ticket) had the clear effect of enhancing satellite as a competitor to cable," Pash testified. "Consumers who previously only had access to a single cable option now have a robust alternative in satellite, with unique and attractive programming such as NFL Sunday Ticket."

Specter said he plans to keep the pressure on. Even when the GOP goes into the minority next year, there appears to be sentiment among Democrats that the NFL situation bears watching.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., expressed concerns over perceived highhandedness by the league.

Feinstein was particularly upset over talk that the San Francisco 49ers might move south to Santa Clara. Feinstein said she was considering legislation that would allow a city some say in whether the name of the city could move to another jurisdiction.

"You can't move to Santa Clara and be a 49er. You're not," she said. "You can't move to Santa Clara and say you're a San Franciscan. You're not."

Leahy said he planned to talk with the two senators about how to proceed with the issue next year.

"As we move into the 110th Congress, I will consult with the senator from Pennsylvania, the senator from California and the other interested members on our agenda," Leahy said.