Is CBS Really About to Offer Fans Free NFL Football?

Lots of fans are happy about Thursday Night Football's new home. Cable and satellite providers say they should think twice before they cheer.

Not all fans should be cheering the NFL's Thursday night deal with CBS, say cable and satellite providers. (National Journal)

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Free football is coming to Thursday night.

The NFL this week announced CBS will carry eight Thursday night games next season, expanding games to broadcast that until now have been nationally available only on the NFL Network.

But amid all the high fives, one group is sounding a different note. The pay-TV industry — advocates for cable and satellite providers — says the NFL-CBS deal will raise customers' cable bill, create more blackouts, and diminish value for some subscribers.

Last season, the league aired 13 Thursday night games on NFL Network, which is available in about 70 million homes. For football fans whose TV subscription doesn't include NFL Network, the CBS addition is a big one. "Our goal is to bring these games to more fans on broadcast television with unprecedented promotion and visibility," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said.

Still, not everyone comes out a winner in the new arrangement, warn cable and satellite advocates. Their argument centers around retransmission consent agreements, which under current law require providers and broadcasters to meet every few years and renegotiate how much TV providers will pay to carry a given station. This can lead to blackouts if the two sides can't agree on a price — cable companies often claim the broadcasters are asking outrageous prices, while broadcasters say providers won't pay fair market value for popular programming.

The CBS deal will exacerbate that problem, say the pay-TV folks. Adding an extra night of NFL programming (the league was responsible for 34 of TV's 35 most-watched shows this fall) will give CBS affiliates leverage to up their prices when it's time to renegotiate. Providers say they'll be forced to endure blackouts or yield to broadcasters' demands, passing the cost on to viewers. "As broadcasters continue to raise the cost of their programming, exponentially it gets passed down to consumers," said the American Television Alliance's Brian Frederick.

It's not just that CBS will be charging more. What really irks cable and satellite companies is that the NFL Network will continue to broadcast the games. Viewers who paid extra for an NFL Network package are stuck paying a higher bill while the same games — or at least eight of them — go out free over the air. And just because CBS viewers can get the game now too doesn't mean NFL Network will be charging less when it comes time to negotiate with providers.

"The NFL has pulled a bait-and-switch here" on NFL Network subscribers, said one pay-TV advocate whose organization has not taken an official position on the NFL-CBS deal. "What you paid for the NFL Network was based on the value of those games being exclusively on the NFL Network.... [They're] changing the get, but you're still going to pay the same amount. You do that in the auto-parts business and you'll get a crowbar through your windshield."

One broadcast industry source declined to comment on the deal's potential impact to pay TV costs, but emphasized its benefit to over-the-air viewers. "[The deal] will keep popular NFL programming on a broadcast platform that is available to 100 percent of American households," the source said. "More importantly, those NFL games will remain free of charge to the nearly 20 percent of homes who have cut the cord or have never subscribed to a pay TV service."

CBS admits the deal adds to its value. "The NFL is the most powerful programming in television," CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus said in a statement. "To add a primetime NFL package to our successful Sunday AFC package further strengthens our position in the sports marketplace." But broadcasters say any marginal effects on pay-TV deals pale in comparison to the the benefits for football fans who don't currently get NFL Network.

Still, the cable folks say that's little consolation to subscribers who will see their bill go up. Even viewers who don't watch football will still have to foot the bill when CBS starts asking for more money, said the pay-TV source. "Sixty, seventy, eighty percent of the market isn't watching CBS, but they're paying for it," he said. Plus, added Frederick, NFL Network subscribers will have to pay more for games they've been paying for all along. "The cable consumers are getting soaked twice on this," he said.

While the providers aren't happy about the new arrangement, they sound resigned to its effects. "That's just a given — death, taxes, and higher cable bills," said the pay-TV advocate.