The Journal Sentinel had an article late last week on the growing controversy between the NFL Network and cable companies.
The article was written in the context of this Thursday’s Packers-Vikings game, which will air on the NFL Network. The issue is that most cable providers – including the two Wisconsin heavyweights Time Warner and Charter Communications – don’t offer the NFL Network as part of their cable package.
Thus, as it stands now, cable and over-the-air viewers in places like Madison and Eau Claire will not see the game. To understand the importance of this, a person only needs to visit the UW-Eau Claire campus this week.
If it’s anything like it was when I was there, the game is going to be the hot topic of conversation heading into Thursday night. I recall after one Vikings victory over the heavily favored Packers – I think it was on a Monday night – a congregation of Vikings fans assembled outside the two Towers dorms to celebrate and taunt the Packers fans.
Needless to say, while all Packers games are big deal in Wisconsin – even when they’re losing – the Packers-Vikings games are a huge deal to many people in the state.
And to toss even more fuel on the flames, this Thursday could very well be Brett Favre's last game at Lambeau (and, not surprisingly, that's exactly how the NFL Network is shrewdly marketing it). I can imagine what foam finger will be displayed by the Packers fans who miss that.
Those of us in the Green Bay and Milwaukee viewing networks – even viewers without cable or satellite, like myself – will see the game because we’re in what’s considered the Packers home market, so our local channels will pick up a feed of the game.
But, still, a good portion of the state is going to miss it.
So what’s the hang up? Well, to put it bluntly, it's cash.
The NFL decided to start featuring select games on its newly formed channel because otherwise only the most die-hard fans would care to tune in if it was just non-stop commentary with a smattering of semi-interesting coverage like the NFL combines and the second day of the NFL draft (I'm using "semi-interesting" loosely).
As for the cable companies, they don’t want to put the NFL Network in the standard line-up – which is what the NFL wants them to do – because they figure they can make more money selling it as part of a premium sports package, thereby forcing people to pay not only for the NFL Network -- which would be the big draw for most -- but also for all of the other sports channels that they many not care to see (and, hence, wouldn't sell very well otherwise).
While it ticks me off that the NFL started this mess by pulling games out of the regular schedule and putting them on its own network (instead of just putting them on an existing cable channel like ESPN or, better yet, one of the existing network channels and simply skimming a portion of the profits from there), I can’t help but side with the NFL now that the controversy exists.
Most of this feeling is driven by the B.S. line from the cable companies that their decision not to put the NFL Network in the standard line-up is about consumer choice. Consumers want to be able to choose if they see the NFL Network, the argument goes, therefore, it should be a part of a premium package – like HBO and Showtime – not the standard cable package.
Putting aside the hilarity of the cable providers claiming they care at all about consumer choice when they are the only show in town for cable in their respective territories, the argument that they make for keeping the NFL Network out of the standard line-up could be made for keeping out every channel that currently exists in that standard line-up.
After all, there isn’t a single channel in the current standard line-up that 100 percent of the cable viewers – or even close to that figure – want to see on a regular or even semi-regular basis. Take C-Span, for instance. I’m about as hooked on politics as anyone; however, I can hardly stand more than 2 to 3 minutes of most programming that comes on C-Span. Who can? Yet, there it is in the standard line-up, and every cable customer is paying for it to be there.
According to the JS article cited above, the cost of getting the NFL Network on the standard cable line-up would be $0.70 (per month, I think, but the article isn't clear on that) for each cable customer (that’s assuming no existing channel would be dropped with its addition). And it’s very true that a portion of people paying that 70 cents wouldn’t care to see the NFL Network at all. But, again, the same could be said for every channel that makes up the standard line-up.
So what makes the NFL Network worthy of inclusion in the standard line-up? The easy answer to that is ratings. Every week during the football season, the primetime NFL games consistently rank near or at the top of the Nielsen ratings for both cable and broadcast rankings.
A couple of weeks ago, for instance, the NBC Sunday Night Football game between Denver and Seattle ranked second in the Nielsen broadcast rankings behind only "CSI." And the ESPN Monday Night Football game between Carolina and Philadelphia ranked first in the Nielsen cable rankings with twice the number of viewers as the second rated show “The Closer.”
Now, the argument could be made that, aside from game time, the NFL Network is not likely to be much of a draw for most viewers. And since the NFL season only takes place during a relatively small portion of the calendar year, does it really make sense to include it in the standard line-up?
While all that is true, the answer must be that it makes at least as much sense as including C-Span 2 and The Golf Channel in the year-round standard line-up.
I mean, really, the legislative process and the PGA Tour can be interesting and all, but can they honestly hold an audience like even the lowliest of NFL games?