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Cable Technology Feature Article

October 15, 2012

FCC Program Access Rules Called Obsolete, Regulators Let Them Expire

By Ed Silverstein, TMCnet Contributor

The FCC (News - Alert) program access rules included in the 1992 Cable Act have expired because they are no longer needed, U.S. regulators claim.

The FCC chose not to extend the rules that required cable operators to make programs available to rival satellite TV broadcasters.

It appears that sports programs are vulnerable to not being shown without the rules. Under the rules, cable providers had to sell their sports programs showing local teams to satellite TV providers at reasonable prices, The Wall Street Journal said.

Cable providers now own or co-own 57 regional sports networks, according to The Journal – using data from the FCC. For instance, Comcast (News - Alert) owns sports networks in Philadelphia, Houston and in the New England states.

Originally, there was concern that cable operators would not sell programs to competitors, Media Mughals said. Now, providers will file individual complaints if a cable operator denies access to a channel.

Not every company was in favor of letting the FCC rules expire. DirecTV, Dish Network, AT&T (News - Alert), Google and Verizon Communications wanted the rules extended. They argued big cable companies wanted to block access to regional sports channels to block competition.

"While we prefer the proven, well-established rule to a case-by-case approach and merger conditions, we are hopeful the FCC is correct in concluding that its new regime will provide adequate safeguards," a DirecTV spokesman was quoted by TMCnet. "If this approach is to be effective, the FCC must be vigilant in its oversight and be ready to act immediately should the cable industry re-engage in anti-competitive conduct."

But Comcast, Time Warner (News - Alert) Cable and other large cable operators argued the rules were “obsolete,” according to news reports.

“The FCC's decision was not a surprise,” reported The Los Angeles Times. “The rules were initially meant to last only 10 years but were extended twice. In 2007, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit indicated that the rules had outlived their usefulness.”

"The exclusivity ban served its purpose, but now the facts justifying its existence have changed in favor of consumers," FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell (News - Alert) said. "Accordingly, this creaky relic must be shown the door."

In a related matter, broadcast stations have threatened many times to stop offering their channels to cable operators if they don’t get enough money. For example, Dish Network’s 14 million subscribers haven't had access to AMC Networks’ channels for more than three months.

Edited by Brooke Neuman

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