Cable TV companies work to avoid Steelers-Browns blackout

By Rick Rouan

The fate of local viewing of the Dec. 10 clash depends on NFL deal.

If two cable providers and the NFL Network don’t strike a deal before December, the Cleveland Browns home clash with the Pittsburgh Steelers will again not make it to local televisions.

Armstrong cable, which carries the NFL Network but does not broadcast the eight games exclusive to the channel, is trying to get a deal before the network begins airing games Nov. 12, a representative said. A spokesman for Time Warner Cable, which does not carry the channel at all, said it’s still negotiating with NFL but would not comment further.

Without a deal to carry the eight games over which the NFL Network has exclusive rights, football fans could miss a traditional grudge match with deep Valley roots. The second Cleveland Browns-Pittsburgh Steelers game of the season will air on the NFL Network on Dec. 10.

“We’re trying to accomplish something here in the coming weeks,” said David Wittmann, vice president of cable marketing at Armstrong. “We’re actively negotiating and very optimistic of a solution. I don’t know how quickly it can get done. I can’t say for sure that it will.”

At issue is how much NFL Network charges cable outfits for the games and how much of that cost would be placed on cable customers. Both sides have refused to disclose the amount the network requests and how much it could cost each customer, citing the active negotiations.

In May, the NFL Network struck a nine-year deal with Comcast, which has the most subscribers in the country, to carry the channel and games. The New York Times estimated that the deal would cost each of the company’s 10.8 million digital subscribers an average of about 50 cents a month.

But Comcast does not serve the Valley, where Armstrong and Time Warner are cable kings. To see the games, Armstrong and Time Warner customers must either switch to satellite dishes or go to bars that show the games.

Now, Armstrong customers pay $51.45 monthly for basic cable plus $12.45 for a digital tier that includes the NFL Network — minus the eight prime-time games. To get the channel — sans the games — in high definition costs an additional $8.95 per month.

“Everybody around here wants to see the Browns-Steelers game,” said Ed Maloney of Boardman. “Something has to be done to get that game broadcast here.”

Maloney said he is a Dallas Cowboys fan, but he supports the Browns as well and wants to see the game.

“I’m a big football fan and I like being able to watch the Browns in this area,” he said.

Poland resident Frank Vallinger said he spends at least $20 a week at the Youngstown Sports Grille and would rather watch games at home. Vallinger said he calls Armstrong every year to complain about the situation.

“They give me the same song and dance,” he said.

Time Warner Cable does not offer the channel at all and wants to package the channel in a premium sports tier, an option the NFL Network has refused in negotiations with other major cable providers, according to previous media reports.

“We want it to be available to all customers,” said Dennis Johnson, an NFL Network spokesman.

But the cable companies contend that not all customers necessarily want the NFL Network games at extra cost. By adding the network to a regular lineup of cable channels, all customers — not just those who want the NFL Network — would pay extra.

“As popular as the NFL is ... everybody doesn’t watch it,” Wittmann said.

Wittmann said that Armstrong has done studies to determine demand for the network, but he would not comment on the results of that market research.

“The reality is that is how the cable business works. It’s not a la carte,” Johnson said.

When Armstrong originally agreed to carry the NFL Network, no games were broadcast, though the possibility of that happening in the future did exist, Wittmann said.

Then, in 2006, the National Football League began to air a package of prime time games exclusively on the NFL Network, setting up a showdown with cable companies over how much more the network would charge for the added games.

“We’re big supporters of the NFL Network and we understand how much our customers value NFL games,” Wittmann said. “We’re just trying to work out how much those games are worth.”

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