NEW YORK (AP) – When the NFL airs the first regular-season games on its own network on Thanksgiving night, it won’t be available to many viewers across the country.

The league hasn’t reached carriage agreements with several major cable operators, which would significantly cut into potential viewership for Thursday’s matchup of the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs.

Local outlets will carry the game, as will satellite TV and a number of cable systems that do carry the NFL Network.

But that totals only about 40 million of the nation’s 111.4 million households with TVs.

Most notable among the cable companies that haven’t reached deals with the NFL are Time Warner Cable, the nation’s No. 2 cable operator; Cablevision, a New York-area provider; and Charter Communications.

Time Warner, for its part, says it’s highly unlikely a deal will be reached in time for the first game.

Comcast, the largest cable company in the country, has carried the network for two years, but as part of a premium-tier sports package ordered by only about 7 million of its 24 million subscribers. Time Warner says it’s balking at a demand from the NFL that the network be carried on the most widely available basic service.

The issue is cost.

Spokesman Mark Harrad says Time Warner would have to pay $140 million a year to provide the channel to all 13.5 million of its subscribers in 33 states, placing it in the top five most expensive cable networks.

He said the company would prefer to carry NFL Network as part of a premium service.

“If we put all expensive sports programming on the standard tier of service, that would increase our rates to all of our customers, even those who didn’t particularly care about football or these games,” said Harrad.

NFL Network spokesman Seth Palansky countered that other cable companies and the two main satellite providers are “happily” carrying the network.

“It’s the most valuable programming a cable company can offer, and a cable company not carrying live NFL games is like a grocery store not carrying milk,” Palansky said.

The NFL already makes a bundle from broadcasting agreements, money shared equally by all 32 teams. NBC bought the rights to Sunday night games this year under a six-year, $600 million deal with the league, while ESPN is paying $1.1 billion for Monday night football over eight years. Last year, the NFL reached six-year, $8 billion extensions with Fox and CBS for Sunday afternoon games.

NFL team owners are betting their own network will offer other opportunities for building revenue in the future, including streaming programming over the Internet and cell phones, Palansky said.

The NFL said at the time of the network’s launch three years ago that it expected to have $100 million in startup costs.

About two-thirds of the NFL network’s 40 million households come from satellite TV subscribers who get the Dish network or DirecTV.

By contrast, ESPN is available in 92 million homes.

Until now, however, the network hasn’t carried any NFL games live; the league didn’t create its late-season eight-game package of Thursday or Saturday night games until this season. Instead, NFL Network has run football-related programming such as news, interviews, game highlights and replays, plus games from NFL Europe and NFL preseason contests.

The NFL is hoping the appeal of live games will help expand the network’s audience.

John Mansell, senior analyst at Kagan Research, a media research and analysis firm, says the dispute between the NFL and the cable companies is about “positioning and money.”

“Cable operators love the NFL, but they want to carry it on a digital tier, where they can use it as a destination for sports programming,” Mansell said. “If it’s going to be expensive, they want to receive compensation for it” from customers who pay premium fees.

The cable companies are in a tough spot in this dispute. If hard-core fans can’t see the games they want, the complaints could start pouring in – something Time Warner says hasn’t happened yet. On the other hand, no one’s going to like it if the cable companies pass along the costs by raising rates.

Comcast, meanwhile, is being sued by the NFL Network after trying to switch over newly acquired cable systems to the arrangement Comcast had in place for its subscribers – an arrangement that has NFL Network on a premium tier.

Comcast executive vice president David Cohen said in a statement that the NFL is trying to “force cable companies to charge many consumers for programming they don’t want. Sports programming fees are out of control in general, and the NFL programming is very expensive.”

Meantime, the NFL Network’s Web site is encouraging fans to request their cable operators carry the network.

AP-ES-11-21-06 1822EST

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.