News

High (Definition) Time for Change

7/18/2009 2:00 AM Eastern

Cablevision Systems' refusal to sell the HD versions of its regional sports networks in New York to Verizon Communications could be an issue that seals the case for eliminating the so-called terrestrial loophole.

The loophole is a provision in the program-access rules that let cable operators withhold terrestrially (rather than satellite) delivered programming the MSO owns from its competitors. HD programming falls into that category, apparently.

At least the situation has persuaded me it's time for program-access rules to extend to high-definition sports programming, if they don't already.

That's especially true when the programmer actually owns the teams whose games are on the networks. That's the case here: Cablevision owns Madison Square Garden, the MSG and MSG Plus networks, and the Garden's principal tenants, the National Basketball Association's Knicks and the National Hockey League's Rangers.

Cablevision's stance: “MSG complies fully with federal regulations, which do not require us to license our local HD programming to anyone.”

Cablevision's MSG and MSG Plus networks are on FiOS TV in standard definition, so its customers can see the same Knicks basketball and Rangers hockey games.

They just can't see them in HD.

The terrestrial loophole in this case enables a severe conflict of interest — between Cablevision serving Knicks and Rangers fans and operating a cable business.

High-definition, especially for sports, is the new standard. If it weren't so important to sports fans, Cablevision wouldn't advertise its HD exclusivity so prominently.

Verizon is starting its own local-news channels to compete against ones owned by cable operators and not available to FiOS. That seems fair. Verizon can also broadcast those channels in HD, presumably.

Verizon can't buy or start its own local NBA or NHL franchises in New York.

There's the difference.

Cablevision says it's playing by the rules. That's fine, if the FCC agrees. But if so, the rules ought to be changed.

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