NFL Network, Dish settle score

Deal reached ahead of player draft

NEW YORK -- Dish Network and the NFL Network have settled their litigation and reached a multiyear agreement for continued carriage of the NFL Network by the satellite TV provider.

The deal was some much-needed good news for the five-year-old NFL Network, which is now available in 42 million homes. After all, it looks set to go off cable systems owned by cable giant Comcast Corp. as of May 1.

A dispute between the NFL and Comcast is based on issues that have also kept No. 2 U.S. cable operator Time Warner Cable from offering the NFL Network and led to TWC's decision a few years ago to dropkick the channel from more than 1 million homes in major TV markets where it had acquired cable 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 start Tuesday. A decision could take several months, though, and each side can then appeal the FCC ruling in federal courts.

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 per month for that tier, 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 TW Cable have argued the high price of the NFL Network and its lack of year-round games make it perfect for a sports tier. They say they would have to raise subscriber fees further otherwise.

The NFL Network televises eight regular-season games and some exhibition matches. It also features NFL Films, coverage of the April 25-26 league NFL Draft and specials.

Under their 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.

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.

"Comcast refuses to reach an agreement with NFL Network on a contract extension that would make the Network more widely available to a larger number of subscribers on its cable systems without the extra monthly fee that Comcast now sets and collects," a spokesman for the NFL Network said. "Comcast had carried NFL Network to a larger number of homes without the extra fee during the first three years of our agreement." He expressed hope a new deal could be reached by the end of the month.

"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 in a statement. "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."
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