Digital Cable May Be Next for the N.F.L.
By RICHARD SANDOMIR
he Jets had just been thrashed by Miami on Sunday, 30-3, and CBS switched to bonus coverage of the Kansas City-New England game.
CBS stuck with it through the Chiefs' tying touchdown, then fled to its studio, and no overtime was seen. Why? It was not CBS's turn to show a Sunday doubleheader (and go beyond 4:15 p.m. Eastern time), so it had to clear out the late afternoon time slot for Fox to carry the Giants' home game against Seattle.
CBS's enforcement of National Football League television rules made me long for a satellite dish (which I can't have) to see out-of-market games or for the possibility that when the DirecTV satellite deal ends after this season, those Sunday afternoon games will be available on digital cable (which I have).
That possibility forms the basis of continuing talks among the league, CBS and Fox. The N.F.L. wants to secure a future of expanding TV revenues, and it sees in digital cable an area with faster growth.
There are more satellite homes (over 18 million) than digital cable subscribers (16.8 million). But the cable industry has invested heavily to make the digital option available to its world of 69 million subscribers. Some estimates place digital subscriber numbers at 30 million within five years.
But before the league can proceed, CBS and Fox want assurances that they will not be hurt if their games, seen on hundreds of local stations nationwide, are carried on digital cable.
On one level, the issue is money. CBS and Fox would like to be compensated well for the switch to digital. Now, after expenses, they get about $10 million each from the N.F.L.'s DirecTV business, called Sunday Ticket. Those annual payments rise as the number of subscribers increases; at some level, Fox and CBS would share 50 percent of revenues. Now, at about 1.3 million subscribers, CBS and Fox share 20 percent.
Another concern for the networks is how to make sure their local commercials are seen on the digital cable games, which would siphon viewers from broadcast TV.
Now, the equation is simple: for a Jets game, Channel 2 in New York sells local advertising, as does the CBS affiliate of its opponent. But imagine that six games are coming in on digital cable at once at 1 p.m. and a New York viewer can choose from any one. At least one new technology is being tested that would allow for Channel 2's local ads to be inserted into five other games airing at the same time, but there is no guarantee that it will be viable soon.
More broadly, the N.F.L. will have to strike a balance between seeking a new pot of gold in digital cable and not hurting the Sunday afternoon broadcast ratings.
The N.F.L. primarily wants to be on broadcast TV (except for its ESPN Sunday night schedule), unlike the N.B.A., which will show most of its games on cable.
This season, as a test, the N.F.L. is protecting broadcast ratings in Pittsburgh and Seattle by blacking out Steelers and Seahawks games on DirecTV, so viewers can only see those games on local stations.
But think ahead to when the CBS and the Fox deals expire after the 2005 season: digital cable is growing fast and N.F.L. games are highly popular. In some markets, ratings would be down because teams are bad and digital viewers are switching to better games. Under that scenario, would CBS and Fox want to pay as much or more than they are paying now (an annual average of $500 million and $550 million)?
Nothing has been decided. If CBS and Fox balk at digital, the N.F.L. will have to wait until 2006 to proceed. DirecTV could return for one or more years, perhaps with a competitor, EchoStar's Dish Network. By then, DirecTV and Dish could be one, but their merger has encountered regulatory difficulties.
Stepping Over the Line
When ABC's Al Michaels referred obliquely to the over/under figure at the end of Philadelphia's 37-7 victory over Washington, was he stepping over the N.F.L.'s ban on gambling commentary?
Greg Aiello, a league spokesman, said: "The networks know our position on gambling. If anyone crosses the line, we discuss it with the network." He declined to say whether the league had talked to Michaels.
With just over a minute left in last Monday night's game — which had an over/under number of 44 — Michaels and John Madden discussed how Eagles Coach Andy Reid changed his mind about kicking a field goal and called a running play on fourth down.
"What if they run a play and it's a touchdown?" Madden said.
"It'll make some people pretty happy and it'll make some people pretty sad," Michaels said.
On "Fox NFL Sunday," the humorist Jimmy Kimmel referred to what Michaels said (with Michaels, a guest star, sitting beside him) in a rant about how the league gets angry when he mentions point spreads but Michaels was able to.
Mark Mandel, an ABC spokesman, said: "What Al does is spontaneous humor and does not condone gambling. No one should overinterpret what he says."