When the NFL schedule-makers assigned Thursday night's game between Dallas and Green Bay to air on their own NFL Network, they probably didn't imagine it would rekindle the controversy surrounding its battle with cable providers.
After all, few experts expected Bret Favre's Packers or Wade Phillips' Cowboys to be 10-1 at this point in the season.
But they are, which means this season's best NFC game will be lost to most TV cable households in the nation, including those on Western New York's primary system, Time Warner.
The cable loss of the game especially stings here because the previous cable operator, Adelphia, carried the NFL Network on its basic package. Time Warner subsequently dropped it.
It's hard to know who to root for in a battle between two titans -- the NFL and Time Warner -- who aren't used to losing. It appears there are no good guys in this dispute, which will result in only about one-third of homes nationwide being able to see the game.
Dallas owner Jerry Jones, the chairman of the league's NFL Network Committee, has been playing league cheerleader, urging NFL fans to pull the plug on cable operators like Time Warner in protest of the refusal to carry the channel under the league's terms.
Time Warner, meanwhile, claims it is holding the line for the benefit of its subscribers. It feels it would have to pass along the 70-cent monthly cost to its subscribers to carry The NFL Network.
Cable's concern for subscribers seems as laughable as Jones' stand, especially now that Time Warner has announced a local rate increase in February that includes $1 a month for its two pay-cable channels, HBO and Cinemax. If it were that concerned, Time Warner might reveal to customers what it pays itself per subscriber for CNN, TNT, TBS, Cartoon Network (which it all owns) and all the channels it carries. It also might allow subscribers to pick the channels they want to pay for.
Channel 25, where The NFL Network used to appear here, now carries SportsNetNY, the New York Mets channel. I'm not sure which channel local viewers here would prefer, but I'm pretty sure why we get SportsNetNY instead of The NFL Network. It is partially owned by Time Warner.
It is unclear how many local Time Warner subscribers have already voted with their pocket books and left cable for satellite TV, which offers The NFL Network and really is the wisest choice for sports fans anyway because it offers so many sports events that cable doesn't offer.
However, The NFL Network needs more than satellite TV to recoup the $400 million rights fee annually it could have gotten if it had sold the eight-game NFL Network package to a broadcast or cable carrier. The games were designed to help grow The NFL Network, which talks football 24-7 for 365 days a year, and give the league insurance in case all the broadcast networks and cable ever walk away from their billion dollar investments with the league.
One game, even one as compelling as Packers-Cowboys, isn't about to change things. The NFL Network has one other potentially compelling game down the line -- the finale between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants. If the Pats are 15-0, they will be going for history and the most rabid NFL fans will be going to sports bars with satellite TV.
It does seem strange in football-crazy Buffalo that Time Warner subscribers can get The NHL Network and NBA TV -- and not The NFL Network. However, the lesser league channels are carried on a digital sports tier, which started on Oct. 31.
The NFL Network says it dropped last year's insistence to be on basic cable and agreed to be on a digital tier but it is against being carried on a sports tier where cable operators want it. A sports tier costs subscribers extra and would substantially reduce the NFL's advertising and subscriber revenue.
The NHL Network and NBA TV don't need $400 million and have other advantages over the NFL Network. They have relationships with cable operators. The NHL Network is a joint venture between the league and Comcast, a cable operator. NBA TV reportedly will be run by Time Warner, which owns TNT, one of the NBA's cable partners.
The NFL Network, meanwhile, is an independent without cable ties. If the league was willing to sell some portion of the Network to a cable operator, cable's unwillingness to pass along the the costs to subscribers would probably disappear as easily as the Buffalo Bills' playoff chances.
Clearly, NFL executives misread this game as much as J.P. Losman misread coverage in the Jacksonville game. Now, league officials need to make the kind of adjustments (hey, how about a price compromise?) that the best coaches make at halftime.
They are also hoping for some relief from the FCC -- which was expected to discuss the issue Tuesday. Any FCC ruling is unlikely to come in time for this season's games. But the fact a government agency is listening might at least put a scare into cable operators who want everyone to play by their rules and don't want them changed or revealed.
For now, there are no winners in this titanic battle but one clear loser -- NFL fans.