FCC requires cable firms to share sports, programming they own

Federal regulators have closed a wrinkle that has allowed cable TV operators to withhold sporting events and other popular programming that they own from satellite companies and other rivals.

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WASHINGTON — Cable TV operators will no longer be able to withhold sporting events and other popular programming that they own from satellite providers and other rivals.

The Federal Communications Commission voted 4-to-1 on Wednesday to eliminate the so-called "terrestrial loophole" in a 1992 federal cable law, which requires cable operators to give competitors access to cable-owned programming that is transmitted using satellite connections. Until now, the provision didn't apply when the cable operators send those programs over land-based networks instead.

Cable companies have been using the loophole, for instance, to keep San Diego Padres games off AT&T Inc.'s U-Verse video service as well as three Philadelphia sports teams off DirecTV Inc. and Echostar Corp.'s Dish Network satellite systems.

"Consumers who want to switch video providers should not have to give up their favorite team in the process," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said.

That sentiment was echoed by cable's rivals.

"The FCC gave sports fans a reason to tailgate today by adopting rules to bring sports programming to more video providers," AT&T Senior Vice President Bob Quinn said in a blog post. "Ultimately, this means consumers will have more choices in how and from who they receive programming they want."

Cable TV operators Comcast Corp., Cox Communications Inc. and Cablevision Systems Corp. and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association had no immediate comment.

The satellite and phone companies complain that big cable TV operators have used the terrestrial loophole to deny them access to must-have programming, particularly popular sports programming.

Cox, for instance, currently uses the loophole to withhold Padres games from AT&T's U-Verse.

Cablevision won't let U-Verse or Verizon's FiOS service carry the high-definition version of Cablevision's Madison Square Garden networks, which show the games of the New York Knicks, Rangers and Islanders and the New Jersey Devils.

Comcast, meanwhile, does not provide its satellite competitors with access to its SportsNet Philadelphia channel, which carries games by the Philadelphia Flyers, Phillies and Sixers. Comcast, which has a controlling interest in the Sixers and Flyers, does provide the channel to Verizon and RCN Corp., which offers competing cable services in some markets.