The Federal Communications Commission voted 5-0 to sunset 20-year-old rules that require cable companies that produce and own TV programming to make it available on rival pay-TV platforms like satellite and fiber-based video services offered by telephone companies.
The decision could change the way big cable companies do business by opening the door for them to offer exclusive programming as a selling point in marketing their services, and could potentially change how consumers decide which TV service to buy.
Comcast, the nation's largest cable company, agreed to abide by program-access rules until 2018 as a condition of its merger with NBC.
According to two industry insiders familiar with the order, which has not yet been released, cable companies will not be allowed to withhold live professional and collegiate sports programming on their regional sports networks from rivals. Pay-TV platforms that aren't allowed access to these RSNs will be able to file complaints to the FCC.
The decision to move on program access was in part urged in a federal court order from 2007, which put pressure on the FCC to "weigh heavily Congress's intention [in the 1992 Cable Act] that the exclusive contract prohibition will eventually sunset."
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement, "Today's unanimous decision enables the FCC to continue preventing anticompetitive video distribution arrangements through a legally sustainable, expeditious, case-by-case review."
The decision to sunset the 20-year-old rules was opposed by a group of satellite providers, telephone companies, and trade associations representing small cable systems and rural telecoms, who petitioned the FCC in filings to keep the rules in effect. American Cable Association President and CEO Matthew M. Polka said he was "disappointed" in the decision to sunset the rules, but said he appreciated the exceptions carved out for regional sports networks.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., issued a statement warning that Congress might have to revisit the issue of program access if the new complaints process "does not deter anticompetitive behavior that harms consumers."
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