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NFL May Take Gripes to FCC

3/07/2008 7:00 PM Eastern

The National Football League might file a complaint at the Federal Communications Commission to obtain carriage from Time Warner Cable and presumably improved distribution terms from Comcast, commissioner Roger Goodell said last Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

“We’re strongly considering that at this point,” Goodell told the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet. “We want the FCC to step in and make sure there’s an open and free market.”

Goodell, though, indicated that relying on the FCC to resolve a program carriage dispute could result in delay and frustration for his cause.

“The FCC’s procedures have turned out to be far too slow and ineffective. Only three [program-carriage] complaints have been filed and none have made it to final resolution,” he said.

Time Warner Cable hasn’t launched NFL Network and Comcast assigned it to a lightly viewed sports tier, prompting Goodell to accuse the two of discrimination because sports channels they own have slots on the most watched programming tiers.

“Comcast and Time Warner, the two largest cable companies, use their bottleneck power to control access and discriminate against independent programmers,” Goodell said, claiming the NFL was a “victim” in the dispute.

Goodell sparred with Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt over cable sports programming issues.

Britt dismissed Goodell’s repeated claim about discrimination, noting that Time Warner does have a big stake in regional or national sports channels. “This picture that somehow cable operators control all this programming and [are] discriminating against the poor NFL is just the wrong picture,” Britt said. Carriage decisions, he said, are often complex and “certainly price and conditions are big part of it.”

The NFL Network has 37 million subscribers, or about 39% of all pay TV subscribers.

ESPN president George Bodenheimer testified, that Congress should let markets function and not prescribe regulations to benefit the NFL. “Our overarching view is that these [disputes] should be resolved through direct negotiations and not government intervention,” he said.

Progress & Freedom Foundation president Ken Ferree, chief of the FCC’s Media Bureau from 2001 to 2005, testified that a rich and powerful entity like the NFL didn’t need regulatory welfare from the FCC.

“I’d say nothing is broken here,” Ferree said.

Congress, he added, has many tough issues to tackle but “the NFL’s failure to negotiate carriage deals for the NFL Network is not one of them.”

September