Stevens Pushes for Sports Access

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A staffer for Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) confirms that the Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee feels that viewers should have access to regional sports network coverage of their home teams, and wants the FCC and/or Congress to do something about it.

Stevens and Comerce Committee member Senator Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) have sent a letter to the FCC suggesting that conditions be put on the deal divvying up Adelphia between Comcast and Time Warner to insure access to regional sports.

"I really do think that the FCC has to address the question of the ability of entities to take away from local people or from people who don’t choose to use one particular type of provider the opportunity to participate in the sports world," Stevens said at a Quello Communication Policy & Law symposium in Washington Friday. "That is one of the key issues of our Committee today, is how to ensure that sports are properly treated," he said.

"We’re going to create a bunch of rights and one of the rights ought to be access by the public to sports programming, particularly those in their area," said Stevens.
"You take people here, as I was telling [former FCC Chairman] Jim Quello, those people who are infirm in and can’t go the stadium, why shouldn’t they be able to watch the games here?
"This idea that someone can contract and get an exclusive right and shut them out, to me means, well, maybe they shouldn’t have any rights at all to be in the broadcasting business, or program business. We cannot allow that to happen. It has got to be available."

The regional sports issue also came up at a markup of the House Commerce version of telecom bill rewrite--a national video franchise bill--but the program access issue did not make it onto that bill, which passed out of the Telecommunicatios Subcommittee Wednesday.

Elsewhere, House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) has scheduled a hearing Friday, April 7, "Why Most Nats Fans Can't See their Team on TV," on TV coverage, or lack of it, of Washington Nationals Baseball games.

Areas of the Washington suburbs served by Comcast can only see a handful of games because the cable company will not carry the Mid Atlantic Sports Network (MASN).

Comcast had bid on the rights to the Nationals -- the relocated Montreal Expos -- but lost out to MASN.

Comcast has, in turn, refused to carry the network on cable systems serving nearly 2 million subscribers in the network's territory. Cox has recently struck a deal to carry the games in Fairfax, another big Washington suburb.

The Baltimore Orioles, which own MASN, turned to the FCC for help and want to make the dispute an issue in regulators' review of Comcast's planned purchase of parts of Adelphia Communications, which the FCC is still reviewing.

MASN is also moving the Orioles games off of Comcast's own regional sports network to MASN starting next year.

Verizon has filed a program-access complaint with the FCC to try and force Cablevision to negotiate a carriage agreement so that Verizon's FiOS TV multichannel video service can carry what it says are various Cablevision-controlled sports channels in New York and New England.

Another element of the issue is the so-called "terrestrial loophole." Because cable operators are only required by law to make satellite-delivered programming available to competitors, regional cable operator-owned sports networks--like those of Comcast in Philadelphia, that are 1) delivered by landline and 2) increasingly have rights to pro teams don't have to make that programming available to satellite or telcos.

An amdendment to the House bill that would have closed the loophole was defeated Wednesday in the Telecommunications Subcommittee.

Most of those games were once readily available on broadcast TV, but as with Monday Night Football and, increasingly, baseball, those games are moving to cable.

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