Commentary: NFL Network setup only hurts fans

Sometime late Thanksgiving Day, after the last piece of pumpkin pie mysteriously vanished and Uncle Frank was snoring loudly on the couch, it might have hit you that all was not right on this, the most American of holidays.

Yes, the turkey was plenty tasty, as usual. Not that Uncle Frank would know, because he was too plastered by the time it finally came out of the oven to notice.

And the traditional stuffing was a smash, much to the delight of lovers of warm, wet bread everywhere.

Still, on a day to give thanks, there was something few could be thankful for.

The NFL was playing, but for most Americans the battle for the Thanksgiving remote was between one set of relatives wanting to watch “Survivor: Cook Island” and the other side of the family intent on seeing “Deal or No Deal.”

Your chances of watching Denver against Kansas City? Those proved scarcer than slices of leftover pie.

For the first time, the NFL gave the country an extra game to go with the traditional Thanksgiving matchups played host by Detroit and Dallas. The league dangled it in front of a football-crazed nation like a plump turkey leg.

Then it snatched it away, hoping to make enough of us so mad that we will run kicking and screaming to the local cable television office to demand the right to make an already obscenely rich league even richer.

Not content with the billions it makes every year in various television contracts, the NFL is televising five Thursday night games and three Saturday games on its own this season in an attempt to add value to a network that basically replays old Super Bowls in an endless loop.

The problem is only about 40 million of the 111.4 million homes in the United States with a television get the NFL Propaganda Channel, er, network. That means nearly two-thirds of the country couldn’t watch the Broncos and Chiefs even if they wanted.

Greedy billionaires do things like that. It’s what helped them become billionaires.

It’s not a bad strategy, considering NFL games are so valuable that ESPN is paying $1.1 billion a year just to televise one Monday night game a week. The NFL is in such demand that the league probably could put on games every night and still dominate the ratings.

The NFL wants big cable companies to carry the NFL Network on basic cable, passing along the costs to millions of viewers who watch nothing more competitive on television than “Iron Chef.”

The cable companies say they don’t mind paying for the network, but want to put it on digital cable or premium sports tiers where those who actually watch the games pay for them.

Just whose fault it is that most didn’t see Thursday night’s game depends on which dog you’re taking in this fight. The choice is a tough one.

Do you go with the fat billionaires who own football teams and are intent in finding every way possible to separate you from your last dollar? Or do you go with the fat billionaires at the cable companies who have gotten rich by figuring out a way to get you to pay for what was once free?

The NFL is betting it will win. The stakes are high because the league gave up $400 million or so in rights fees to air the games itself. By forcing a Thanksgiving Day showdown, the NFL showed it is not beyond using the extortionist tactics it usually reserves for looting taxpayers to build new stadiums.

Ultimately, of course, it’s the fans who lose.