Blumenthal Prepping Sports Blackout Bill

To preserve antitrust exemption, leagues would need "no blackout" clauses in contracts with video distribs
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Sen.
Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) is
working on a bill that would prevent the major professional sports leagues from
allowing games to be blacked out during retransmission consent disputes or
other programming impasses.

The bill
would apply to the NFL, Major League Baseball, NBA and the NHL and is
keyed to their antitrust exemptions.

The
legislation does not make the leagues do anything, at least not technically.
But it does say that if they want to keep their exemptions, they need to make
it part of their contracts that no video licensee, broadcaster or MVPD, can
withhold their programming during a contractual dispute.

TV stations
or cable operators could still black out their own programming or big-ticket draws like the Oscars or owned
content or college sports. But not the pro sports league games that are made
possible thanks to the antitrust exemption, and tax exempt status, and public
subsidies for stadiums.

Regional
sports networks could also not withhold games during carriage disputes.

The bill
also requires leagues to make home games available online to viewers who can't
watch them on broadcast or cable, though in that case the issue is not
programming disputes but where those viewers live in relation to their favorite
team.

The
leagues could still black out  games
online for anyone with a local area IP address showing they can get it on
broadcast, for example.  But
in cases where, for example, MLB's local areas in Boston and New
York wind up overlapping and say, a Red
Sox fan can only get the Mets on broadcast and the Yankees on their local cable
operator, MLB would have to give them online access to the Sox, but would be allowed
to charge a fee.

That
provision is primarily targeted to MLB to get it to narrow those local areas if
it wants to keep its exemption.

Hill
sources say those working on the bill have been in discussion with industry
players including broadcasters, ESPN, Comcast and others. The bill has been
tweaked with perhaps a couple more tweaks to go.  The timing of the bill's
introduction is unclear-the Senate and House were still at odds over the budget
last week-but it could be introduced as early as next week.

Sports
fans across the country are sick and tired of being blacked out of games of
their favorite teams, My proposal would condition the broad anti-trust
exemptions give to the leagues by Congress upon making their programming more
available to fans, " Blumenthal
told B&C/Multi in an e-mail. "It
treats all players in the industry fairly and leaves the decisions up to the
leagues whether they want to meet their public interest obligations or lose
their anti-trust exemptions."

Sen. John
McCain (R-Ariz.) could be a co-sponsor, said one source. McCain's office could not be
reached for comment at press time.

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