Congress questions NFL Network plan to air live games

WASHINGTON -- The NFL is about to start airing live
regular-season games on its own network, and that has Congress a
bit curious.

"We're intrigued, to put it mildly, what the NFL has in mind,"
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said Tuesday at a hearing of the Senate
Judiciary Committee.

Specter grilled NFL executive vice president and general counsel
Jeffrey Pash during the 90-minute hearing on sports programming.
The hearing focused on how live games on the NFL Network could
affect cable and satellite rates and whether the games raise any
antitrust issues in connection with the Sports Broadcasting Act.

The NFL Network will air eight live games this season, starting
Thanksgiving night when the Denver Broncos play the
Kansas City Chiefs. Some broadcast companies, including Time Warner, have
balked at paying the higher fee the league is charging to carry the
network because of the games.

Time Warner chief operating officer Landel Hobbs testified that
the NFL Network's rates are "out of whack" when compared to
viewership ratings.

Pash responded that the NFL Network has indeed increased its
fees, but he cited the popularity of the league's product as
justification. He said other NFL Network carriers -- including
DirecTV, EchoStar, Comcast and Cox -- have not passed along the
price increase to their customers. However, Comcast wants to start
offering the network as part of a premium sports-tier package,
which has sparked a legal challenge from the NFL.

Pash also noted the NFL is the only major pro sports league that
broadcasts all of its games on free, over-the-air television in
participants' local markets. The NFL Network games will be aired by
local stations in the participating teams' markets, using the same
arrangement that exists with ESPN telecasts on Monday nights.

"There's been a mass migration away from broadcast television
with one exception -- the NFL -- and we still have every game on
broadcast television," Pash said.

Pash said the NFL Network's offerings do not run afoul of
antitrust laws because they are "pro-competitive" and expand
choices for consumers. As for Specter's concern about "what the
NFL has in mind" for the future, Pash said it will be several
years before there can be another significant change in how games
are broadcast.

"For the next six years we've got contracts with the broadcast
networks," Pash said. "We've got a contract with ESPN that goes
out eight, so it's not like we're going to do this, this week, and
next week we're going to do three times as much. This is where we
are for the foreseeable future. We'll see if it works or not. We'll
see if there's consumer acceptance. We'll see if there's consumer
response. If these games don't get wide distribution, if they don't
get good ratings, ratings commensurate with what our other games
get, if they don't get strong advertiser support, we'll have to
look at an alternative."