- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 4, 2003

There might be a few people who believe the NFL is too ubiquitous in American culture.

For everyone else, there is the NFL Network.

The dominant U.S. sports league ratchets up its power yet again this evening with the debut of a full-time TV network devoted to nothing but the NFL. Backed by $100million in start-up funds and an all-star lineup of announcers, producers and executives, the NFL believes the time is right to serve up an all-you-can-eat diet of football.

“This is the most popular [TV] programming on the planet,” said Steve Bornstein, president and chief executive of the NFL Network. “We believe that there is an opportunity to exploit that and to serve those people that are interested in this product on a seven-day-a-week business. And I think this is beyond any other sports league, it is beyond any other entertainment franchise.”

There will be no live, regular-season games on the NFL Network. Those remain the exclusive domain of the four other networks collectively paying more than $2billion a year in rights fees. Rather, the NFL Network will rely on a daily studio show called “NFL Total Access” that will have former ESPN anchor Rich Eisen as its host; more than 110million feet of film from the vaults of NFL Films; and a still-developing battery of reality shows and feature programming showcasing past and current players.

Other key shows include a weekly officiating roundup with Mike Pereira, the NFL’s director of officiating, in which he will review disputed calls from each week of play, and a weekly game review in which one contest a week will be compressed to one hour, shown in high-definition TV and analyzed in deep, strategic detail.

“I think one of the interesting things about the network is the breadth,” said Steve Sabol, president of NFL Films. The New Jersey-based film operation, regarded as one of the finest film promotional outfits of its kind, will play a key role in the production and editing of content on the NFL Network.

“We have shows in essence that will cover things a mile wide and go one inch deep, and then we might have another show that goes one inch wide and is a mile deep. As a filmmaker, it is an enormous challenge, and it is so much fun,” Sabol said.

The NFL Network, however, is not without its questions or feisty industry debate. Since broadcast TV revenues are the economic lifeblood of the league, the NFL Network must walk a fine line between not cannibalizing viewer interest for Fox, ESPN, CBS and ABC, remaining attractive to viewers and covering the league with some journalistic integrity.

Though the NFL is now a 12-month-a-year enterprise, activity is sporadic between the Pro Bowl in early February and training camps in late July, leaving a six-month chunk of time to fill with the April entry draft the only major high point in that period. NFL Europe games, which likely will be shown on the NFL Network, will help somewhat, but that springtime low period remains a looming challenge for network programmers.

And then there are the distribution questions. The NFL Network currently can be seen only on DirecTV, which has nearly 12million subscribers. The satellite operator, which holds a $2.5billion contract with the NFL to show its out-of-market game package, gave the NFL Network a prime slot, channel 212, just after the block of ESPN networks.

The cable industry, however, has taken a much more rigid posture with the venture. Already irate with fast-escalating fees for sports programming, no cable distribution deals are in place for the NFL Network. And despite Bornstein’s confidence that the situation will soon change, resistance remains strong in some pockets.

Part of that standoff owes to the NFL Network wanting placement on basic cable tiers. NBA TV, which has operated a similar all-basketball-all-the-time network for several years, is content to remain on more limited and expensive sports tiers. The NFL Network also is believed to be seeking 25 cents a subscriber from cable operators, roughly the same rate as the highly established MTV or Nickelodeon.

“We just haven’t seen an offer that’s appropriate for our members,” said Dan Mulvenon, vice president of member services for the National Cable Television Cooperative, which helps negotiate distribution pacts for smaller cable operators.

The NFL Network also proved to be a lightning rod before its first day with the recent hiring of Tampa Bay defensive lineman Warren Sapp as a weekly personality on “NFL Total Access.” Sapp recently called the NFL a “slave master” in the midst of his ongoing dispute with league executives over his on-field conduct.

“Warren was hired before his free speech episode,” NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said. “He can say what he wants to say, I guess. The NFL Network is making its decision based on who can be interesting on television. What more can you say? What more should you say?”

Industry insiders say the network will be primed to provide live game distribution after the current TV contracts expire after the 2005 season. Such a move would aid a network bottom line that is not projected to reach profitability until at least 2006.

Bornstein denied the talk, though he did acknowledge the network programming will look much different a year from now and continue to evolve. Either way, the network already is lining up a large battery of corporate sponsors, including Sony, AOL, FedEx and IBM.

“Everyone wants to be associated with the NFL and the NFL brand,” Bornstein said.


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