I know this is the time of peace on Earth and good will toward men, but I can’t help but feel there’s trouble brewing for cable operators. I feel something seismic is about to happen, and I live a long way from the nearest fault line. At the epicenter of that seismic event promises to be the owner of the most precious programming commodity on basic cable today – which, if you don’t know by now, is the NFL. In some circles NFL stands for National Football League. But in cable it stands for No Free Lunch. The NFL is precious. The NFL has value. But the NFL comes at a steep price – a very steep price. Sure, the league’s games draw ratings, and sure those games might just be the Hope Diamond in cable’s cache of programming jewels. Heck, you could even argue that the Sunday- night cable package that ESPN bought in 1987 legitimized cable, pure and simple, and helped catapult the entire industry into the rarified air it now inhabits. But one has to look no further than ESPN’s hefty rates to see evidence of the NFL’s influence on operators. In fairness, ESPN’s value message is well articulated, and has merit. And, as I write this, I know lots of operators feel their relationship with ESPN has survived years of double-digit rate increases, in large part because of the merit in their value argument. I sense operators even have made a sort of internal peace and reconciled ESPN’s rates, because of the NFL. But this column is not about ESPN. It’s about the NFL and its soon-to-be-expiring cable contract. What worries me is that when I look at potential suitors, I see how far the landscape has changed since ESPN did its last gazillion-dollar deal with the league. I see Viacom with Spike and its recently purchased all-sports network CSTV. Would Tom Freston want to super-charge Spike or re-invent CSTV Networks around an NFL package? Probably not, but I wouldn’t stake my life on it. How about NBC and USA? Wouldn’t a Sunday-night NFL package look much more ad-worthy than another night of Law & Order spin-off reruns? But the one I really wonder about is OLN, the cute little network that Comcast bought some time ago. Maybe it’s got a taste for competitive sports after Lance Armstrong and the NHL. And maybe Comcast has gained enough intelligence through its RSNs to justify a roll of the dice. Heck, it took a shot at Disney. The NFL package would be like stopping at 7-11 for a half gallon of milk compared to that. And let’s not forget Rupert Murdoch, who once stole the NFL right out from under the nose of CBS and used it to build the FOX television network. All of this, of course, adds up to trouble for operators. Because each one of those companies has a legitimate reason to bid long and hard for the NFL, and my guess is the magic number will ultimately make the ESPN/Disney deal of 1998 seem affordable. But the trouble lies in the fact that it’s not those cable programmers paying for the NFL. It’s the cable customer, the majority of whom do not even watch the NFL. And whose job is it to collect that money each month? You got it. And if someone other than ESPN gets the package, the only change the MSOs will see – besides a goose in their monthly programming costs – is that the NFL games they’ve been carrying for years will simply have shifted to another favorite-channel button on the remote. I don’t know what the answer is, but I have a sense of where this is headed. And Symonds says it scares me. Peace on Earth? Good will toward men? As someone once said NFL stands for: Not For Long. Curtis Symonds can be reached at curtissymonds@yahoo.com

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