On Saturday night, the New York Giants will face off against the powerful New England Patriots, who are chasing all sorts of historic NFL records -- most significantly, the second perfect season in league history (New England already is the first team to go 15-0 and can finish undefeated on Saturday). This game might also be billed as "The NFL vs. The Cable Guys."The Giants-Patriots game was originally to have been aired exclusively on the NFL Network, the 3-year-old all-pigskin-all-the-time channel owned by the league. This would have left millions of NFL fans out in the December cold, because the NFL Network is shown only on satellite TV and on Comcast's premium-tier cable package, which restricts it to around 43 million subscribers, or something like 32% of U.S. households. The reason: The NFL wants to charge the cable companies a premium for carrying its broadcasts ($7 to $9 per household, about twice as much as NBA TV), and as a result the cable companies have either put it on their premium packages (Comcast) or declined to carry it altogether (Time Warner and Cablevision).
This billionaires' stand-off has resulted in all sorts of demagoguery (after a recent league meeting, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell whined, "We have some great games that are going to be on, and some [viewers] won't be able to see them because the cable operators are not distributing them") and the inevitable lawsuits (in May a federal judge threw out the league's claim that Comcast is somehow legally obligated to put the NFL Network on basic cable).
In the case of Giants-Patriots, the league, facing legions of disgruntled fans, not to mention possible congressional scrutiny, relented: The game will actually be shown on both NBC and CBS (rebroadcasting the NFLN coverage).
At its heart this dispute has a lot in common with the ongoing Hollywood writer's strike (which only seems like it's been going on for two years, rather than two months): Both spats are about alternative forms of distribution (league-owned cable channel vs. traditional networks, Internet downloads and DVDs vs. theater distribution), their value, and how they should be paid for. In the case of the NFL, there's a simple solution: lower the fee charged to the cable carriers, thereby increasing revenue by adding dozens of millions of new subscribers, and also make the NFL Network available as an online subscription service. Tomorrow night's free game notwithstanding, though, don't look for anyone at NFL HQ to figure that out any time soon.