NEW YORK The NFL responded to pressure from senators by offering Time Warner Cable temporary access to the NFL Network in exchange for using the arbitration process the league wants. But the cable company reaffirmed its preference for private negotiations.
A day earlier, a letter to the NFL from two powerful members of the Senate Judiciary Committee Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa. threatened to reconsider the league's antitrust exemption if it didn't make games on the network available to more viewers.
On Thursday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sent Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt a letter proposing that the cable company could immediately start airing the channel for free if it agreed to a binding arbitration process to determine the price and method for how the network would be distributed.
The league has long been in favor of using arbitration to settle the dispute and has asked government officials to force the two sides into arbitration. But this is the first time it has offered to allow a cable company to broadcast the network during the time it would take for the arbitration process to work. Time Warner would be charged retroactively after the arbitrator reached a ruling, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said.
Also on Thursday, a state Senate committee in Wisconsin heard testimony from the NFL and major cable companies on a bill that would require arbitration.
Britt responded with a letter to Goodell declining the offer.
"As I'm sure you are aware, over the years we've been able to successfully reach agreements with hundreds of programming networks without the use of arbitration," he wrote. "We continue to believe that the best way to achieve results is to privately seek a resolution and not attempt to negotiate through the press or elected officials."
The proposal does not apply to Comcast, another large cable provider with which the league is feuding, McCarthy said. Comcast already has the ability to provide the network to all its customers. The company broadcasts the channel on a premium tier that carries an additional fee. The NFL sued over that setup; a judge ruled in favor of Comcast, and the league has appealed.
Eight games air this season on the NFL Network, which is available in fewer than 40 percent of the nation's homes with televisions. Games are simulcast on free TV locally for each team, but that doesn't include regional markets where many fans of the club live. NFL officials have repeatedly said they will not agree to any distribution arrangement that only involves games and not year-round broadcast of the channel.
The Patriots' regular-season finale on Dec. 29 against the New York Giants, in which they could be going for a historic undefeated record, is scheduled to air on the NFL Network.
A vice president of the Green Bay Packers told the state Senate committee in Wisconsin that the channel's exclusion from some major cable networks could spell the beginning of the end of the sport's popularity.
"Sports die off when they are not broadly accessible to the fans," Jason Wied said. "This is the start of that problem."
Wied, along with the president of the NFL Network, spoke in support of a bipartisan bill that could require an arbitrator to resolve disputes between the network and cable companies. The head of the Big Ten Network and the commissioner of the Big Ten Conference testified, but did not take a position on the proposal.
Steve Bornstein, head of the NFL Network and former president of ESPN, said the cable companies are not negotiating in good faith.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said he thinks his network's conflict with cable providers can be resolved without arbitration. It has already negotiated 181 deals and is in more than 30 million homes, he said.
Still, Delany said negotiations with the country's largest cable providers have been "going no place."
The director of the Wisconsin Cable Communications Association, which represents Time Warner Cable, Charter Communications, Comcast Cable, MediaCom and 25 other smaller providers, said the state should not interfere with negotiations in a free market and doing so may be unconstitutional.
Wisconsin is one of a handful of states considering arbitration as a way to resolve the problem. Other states looking into it include Illinois, Ohio, Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina and Indiana.
The Federal Communications Commission is also being lobbied by members of Congress to institute an arbitration process at the federal level to address the problem.