Comcast, the nation's largest cable television operator, can distribute the NFL Network as niche programming instead of as part of a bigger digital package with many more viewers, a judge has ruled, potentially costing the league millions of dollars a month in revenue.
The NFL owns the network, which broadcasts live out-of-market games and also carries original professional football programming.
The NFL sued in October after Comcast notified the league that it had decided to put the network on a sports tier with about 750,000 viewers, moving it from a digital tier seen by more than 7 million of its 24 million cable customers. A tier carries a specific type of programming and is available to customers at an additional price over the cost of basic programming.
The NFL opposed the switch because under an agreement between the two companies, Comcast had to pay the league 55 cents per subscriber each month. With the loss of viewers, the NFL would earn significantly less money.
It was unclear if the NFL Network would appeal Manhattan state Supreme Court Justice Bernard J. Fried's May 4 ruling, which was made public Thursday. A telephone message left with the network's lawyer was not immediately returned.
Comcast said it made the move because it didn't want to charge customers the extra money for the NFL programming they might not want in the digital tier.
"We bargained explicitly for the right to place the NFL Network on a sports tier because it is the best and fairest solution for all our customers," David L. Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast, said in a statement Thursday. "This decision means that our customers who are NFL fans will be able to watch the NFL Network without burdening those who are not NFL fans with extra costs."
Comcast said it intends to move the NFL Network to a sports tier for the 2007 season, allowing customers who subscribe to view eight additional live out-of-market NFL games.