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FCC throws bone to sports fans and satellite and telco operators

January 20, 2010 | 11:45 am

In a move that will be cheered by sports fans and booed by the cable industry, the Federal Communications Commission is making it harder for cable companies to not offer their regional sports channels to rival distribution services from satellite and telephone companies.

The commission said it has received numerous complaints "alleging that cable operators have significantly hindered competition by withholding from their rivals terrestrially delivered regional sports networks." In other words, cable operators are keeping the good stuff for themselves.

GENACHOWSKI For example, in Philadephia, cable giant Comcast Corp. has been able to keep its local sports channel Comcast SportsNet away from DirecTV and Dish. In San Diego, Cox owns a sports channel that it does not allow AT&T's U-Verse service to carry. And in New York,  Cablevision doesn't let Verizon or AT&T carry some high-definition versions of its sports channels. Under the new rules, the FCC will decide whether the cable operator is playing fair; however, its ruling certainly indicates that the commission thinks cable has been hogging the play regarding local sports.

In a statement, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said, "Consumers who want to switch video providers shouldn’t have to give up their favorite team in the process. Today the commission levels the competitive playing field."

Although the FCC already has rules -- known as program access -- prohibiting cable operators that own programming from refusing to sell their networks to rival distributors, these particular local sports channels have an exemption known as the terrestrial loophole. Basically, the channels mentioned above, being local and not national services, are distributed on landlines and not through satellites.

While much of the attention is on sports channels, the ruling applies to any terrestrial-delivered service.

The FCC ruling was expected and will likely be challenged by at least one cable operator, if not more. 

-- Joe Flint

Photo: FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times

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Photo: FCC chairman Julius Genachowski. Credit: Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times.