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Senators Blast Cable Attempts to Deny Access to Sports Nets

Apr 6, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Top Senate Commerce Committee members on Thursday publicly blasted a growing effort by leading cable TV operators to deny competitors access to regional sports networks.

“There ought to be access by the public to sports programming,” said committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, during a hallway interview with reporters. Added Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, the committee’s ranking minority member: “If there is such a thing as an American way of life, sports is part of that.”

Sen. Stevens also said that he and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., recently urged the Federal Communications Commission to consider the impact that Comcast and Time Warner’s proposed acquisition of Adelphia Communications could have on cable’s growing control over the TV rights to important sports programming in the communities they serve.

“This idea that someone can contract and get an exclusive right and shut out [those who don’t subscribe to the cable TV system that controls the sports rights] to me means … maybe they shouldn’t have any rights at all to be involved in the broadcasting business or the programming business,” Sen. Stevens said. “We cannot allow that to happen. [Sports programming has] got to be available.” Added Sen. Inouye: “We look upon sports from the public aspect of it.”

Under provisions in the 1992 Cable TV Act, cable TV operators have to make the programming they distribute by satellite available to competitors, including satellite TV operators and telephone companies. But under a loophole in the legislation, cable TV programming that operators distribute terrestrially over fiber-optic networks does not have to be made available to competitors-and cable TV operators are increasing their use of terrestrial delivery for important sports programming in their communities in recent years.

In an effort to break cable’s hold, watchdog groups and satellite TV operators have asked the FCC to condition Comcast and Time Warner’s acquisition of Adelphia on the buyers’ agreeing to make any sports programming they distribute terrestrially available to competitors.

In an April 4 letter to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, Sens. Stevens and Dorgan asked the agency to consider placing conditions on the Adelphia merger, saying that they were particularly concerned about “the potential for exclusive contracts for regional sports programming may unfairly impede competition.”

“Regional sports programming cannot be duplicated and thus is critical to a video provider’s ability to compete for subscribers,” the two lawmakers said.

In a statement, Comcast said: “Competitors can distinguish themselves with certain exclusive content, as DirecTV does with NFL Sunday Ticket. Complaints about our decision not to license our Philadelphia sports network to satellite providers have been repeatedly rejected by the FCC and the courts. We have again addressed this issue in the FCC’s review of the Adelphia transaction, even though it is not relevant. These transactions do however promise great benefits for consumers, including accelerating the deployment of advanced entertainment and communications services, and lifting the Adelphia systems out of bankruptcy and placing them on solid financial footing. Approval of this transaction should not be delayed because of this issue.”

Said EchoStar Communications, in a statement: “Policymakers in Washington recognize that access to programming is a must-have for a competitive marketplace. Consumers want choice. And they don’t have a real choice if cable companies can prevent their competitors from gaining access to sports and other popular programming. We are very pleased that Senators Stevens and Dorgan highlight in their letter the kind of de facto discrimination that Dish Network has been experiencing, and we are counting on the FCC to remedy the problem through conditions on the Adelphia acquisition.”