TV Nets' Growing NFL Headache As Football Players' Contact Nears Expiration

While it is monitoring closely the antics of its troubled sitcom star Charlie Sheen in Los Angeles, CBS is also keeping a weary eye on Washington where another major problem is brewing. CBS is not alone on that one. CBS, Fox, NBC, ESPN and DirecTV are all following the negotiations between NFL owners and players, which are going down to the wire. The two sides met with a mediator in Washington D.C. for 4 hours today, 35 hours before their current agreement expires at midnight on Thursday night.

A failure to reach a new deal will lead to NFL’s first players lockout in decades. Thankfully, the new NFL season is six months away. But a disrupted or, worse, canceled football season will have a huge impact on the networks that carry the games, especially NBC, which is relying heavily on Sunday Night Football, its strongest program at the moment, to lead its ratings turnaround. A lockout could disrupt the great momentum NFL football is enjoying on television. It is coming off its biggest TV season ever, breaking a slew of ratings records capped by the record 111 million viewers who tuned in to the Super Bowl on Fox. Getting massive viewer turnout at a time when network viewership is steadily declining explains why the current NFL-associated networks are not complaining about paying steep license fees: CBS ($3.73 billion), NBC ($3.6B), Fox ($4.27B), ESPN ($8.8B).

In other developments, a federal judge today sided with the NFL Players Association in a dispute over TV broadcast revenue the union says was negotiated by the league to help management survive a possible players lockout. NFLPA claimed that NFL’s pacts guaranteed lower network fees if the league would be entitled to a $4 billion “lockout payment” in case of a work stoppage. U.S. District Judge David Doty ruled that management did not negotiate in good faith to make deals that benefit both the NFL and its players, and suggested the NFL bullied its broadcast partners into the agreements. A hearing on damages and an injunction on the TV contracts has not been scheduled.

With contributions from Patrick Hipes.

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