FCC Backs “Sports Neutrality”

Earlier this week, the FCC ruled that cable companies that control local content — such as professional sports games — must make the programming available to other services, including satellite systems like DirecTV and DISH Network. This closes what has been called the “terrestrial loophole“. It got its name from the fact that any programming that used satellite connections for any portion of its distribution had to be made available to other subscription TV services. If the programming is only transmitted through terrestrial connections — such as phone lines or microwave radio — then the local station didn’t have to share it.

This created problems in some markets — such as New York, Philadelphia, and San Diego — where local cable companies have exclusive rights to professional sports home games. The new ruling will clear the way for the satellite services to carry this programming.

Naturally, the satellite companies are hailing the decision as a major victory for the consumer. The cheering may be premature, however, as the lone dissenting commissioner, Robert McDowell, pointed out. He said that the decision went beyond the FCC’s “statutory reach” and that it was open to a legal challenge. I expect this matter to end up in the courts before it is implemented, and even if it is upheld, it could be a long time before satellite subscribers will be given the opportunity to see these local games on their screens.