It's hard to take a side in this one, especially after spending the last few days locked in a battle with my cable company over a new HD receiver. And anyone who has ever tried to decipher the various charges on their cable bill knows there's nothing warm and fuzzy about the folks who bring you television service.
That said, nobody likes a bully, either. And that's basically what the NFL has been in a dispute that will surely escalate Thursday night when the Dallas Cowboys play the Green Bay Packers.
Tony Romo versus Brett Favre. Two historic franchises in a likely preview of the NFC championship game. One of the best two or three games of the year.
And 70 million households unable to watch it.
The sad thing is, it never had to come to this. The bad thing is, it gets worse - those same households also won't be able to watch Dec. 29 when the undefeated New England Patriots just might be making history in their final game of the season against the New York Giants.
Who's to blame? Depends on who you ask.
Greed, though, seems to be the common denominator.
``It's definitely a power struggle between two very strong forces,'' said Steve Solomon, a former ABC executive who runs a television consulting business. ``The question is, do eight games at the end of the day justify distribution at the amount of money that they're asking for to the much larger cable universe?''
The issue is complex, so complex that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is asking Congress to get involved. I won't bore you with all the intricate details, but it basically comes down to this: Should every cable subscriber in the country pay $8.40 a year for the NFL Network, or should cable companies put it in a special sports tier where only those who want the channel pay extra for it?
The NFL believes its channel should be on basic cable. It says it's unfairly being kept off by cable companies who have their own networks to promote and are not happy that the league's Sunday Ticket package is only available on satellite TV. The money is so big and the issue so important to the league that commissioner Roger Goodell devoted an entire conference call last week to spelling out the NFL's side.
Big cable companies like Comcast and Time-Warner counter by saying there's not enough programming of interest on the network to justify customers paying extra for it, the way they do for ESPN and its various channels.
Someone will win this battle at some point. Someone will figure out a way to compromise because there's just too much money involved.
But for now, most of America is a loser unless they take the advice of Jones and buy a satellite system to show those big, bad cable companies just who is the real boss.
There was a time, not so long ago, when anyone with a television set and an antennae could watch pretty much everything the NFL had to offer. But little by little the games are being shifted to spots where you have to pay in some way to watch them, part of a trend in all sports to squeeze even more money out of the average fan.
Ever wonder where ESPN got all that money to get the Monday Night Football package? You may not know it, but you're paying three or four bucks a month for the right to watch the sports network.
No one paid much attention to the NFL Network until last year when the league decided to keep eight games out of its television negotiations and air them on either Thursday or Saturday nights. The ante was raised this year when the games included the Cowboys-Packers matchup and the final game of the regular season for the Patriots.
Take those games away, and there's not much there. Wednesday's NFL Network schedule, for example, featured a replay of the San Francisco-Arizona game for some reason, among four game replays from the week before, along with a highlights show and something called ``Put Up Your Dukes,'' where former offensive lineman Jamie Dukes talks about football.
There is a solution in all this, but you'll never hear it from the cable companies or the NFL because it scares them both. Free enterprise usually does.
It's called a la carte pricing, an idea that has been floated from time to time by the FCC, and it works like this: Customers pick and choose the channels they want to watch and pay just for those channels. If you can't stand the thought of being without Rachael Ray, you buy the Food Channel; if you want Jamie Dukes you buy the NFL Network.
You get what you pay for. They get paid for delivering what you want.
And for once greed doesn't triumph.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at

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