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Bergmayer Wants Fans Act Resurrection

DirecTV, Scripps Sports, PK Officials Battle Over Retrans Ahead of House Communications Panel

DirecTV Chief Content Officer Rob Thun, Scripps Sports President Brian Lawlor and Public Knowledge Legal Director John Bergmayer are staking out dueling positions on whether Congress should revisit retransmission consent legislation. In written testimony ahead of a Wednesday House Communications Subcommittee hearing, all three echo Puck News Sports Correspondent John Ourand in suggesting that the sports media marketplace remains in a state of flux but take a range of positions on whether that will make legislating more difficult in the short term. The hearing begins at 10:30 a.m. in 2322 Rayburn.

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DirecTV continues to back “retransmission consent reforms” via Congress and the FCC, Thun says. “The migration of sports programming from” regional sports networks “to broadcasters only increases the need for such reform. Broadcasters rely today on retransmission consent payments from distributors like us to survive. They will surely seek yet higher payments as they spend more of their resources on new sports rights. This simply won’t work without reform.” All stakeholders “must work together to ensure that the marketplace that has delivered an unprecedented wealth of sports programming to the American people remains viable,” he says.

Lawmakers “should reject calls for legislation that would undermine critical laws such as retransmission consent, which is essential for local broadcasters’ ability to invest in local sports and news,” Lawlor says. He cited the increasingly “competitive landscape where some sports are increasingly more expensive and inaccessible to many fans.” The “same stations that viewers turn to for trusted, local voices on their newscasts are the natural and obvious places for them to go to watch their favorite local team or national sports league. These stations are available to fans and viewers for free, over the air, and must remain so,” Lawlor says.

PK is urging lawmakers to reconsider legislation like the Furthering Access and Networks for Sports Act “that would put public interest conditions, such as a prohibition on blackouts stemming from retransmission consent disputes during marquee events, on sports leagues’ antitrust exemption,” Bergmayer says. Last filed in 2015 (see 1512170061), the Fans Act would have required online streaming in cases of blackouts by the NFL. Senate Commerce Committee member Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., more recently filed the Go Pack Go Act to require cable, satellite and other video providers to give Wisconsin subscribers access to programming from broadcast TV stations in a Wisconsin media market (see 2209070050).

Scripps “strongly” backs calls for the FCC to refresh the record in docket 14-261 on reclassifying linear streaming services as MVPDs (see 2306230062) amid “a rapidly shifting media marketplace” in which “Americans are cutting the traditional pay TV cord and moving more toward alternative services,” Lawlor says. “While sports on pay platforms is not a new phenomenon, the trend of removing sports from those stations available to all viewers and toward airing only on paid services has been met with significant fan objections.” This “has made it difficult for fans to watch in many cases -- either through difficulty finding the games or the expense or logistical challenges of the streaming option,” he says: “This all comes at the detriment of local sports, whose frustrated fanbases are unable to watch their teams compete.”

We know from the NFL’s experiment in giving Peacock exclusive rights to the Miami Dolphins-Kansas City Chiefs playoff game that such offerings cause customer anger and confusion,” Thun says. “People don’t like having to hunt for the big game across multiple services. People especially don’t like paying twice for programming they used to get for a single fee from pay-TV.” This “ultimately disrupts the economics of sports because it makes pay-TV less valuable to subscribers, which in turn endangers the leagues and their partners,” he says: The “migration of RSN programming to over-the-air broadcasters … may strike some observers as a good thing,” but instead it “will make some local sports programming unavailable to many who receive it today. And it will drive up prices for our entry-level programming package, forcing those uninterested in sports to pay for it.”

Sports streaming has made it “easier for niche and smaller sports to reach fans online” and has allowed organizations “like the Professional Darts Association provide their own video content online,” Bergmayer says. But “the proliferation of streaming services, and the fragmentation of content between them, means that costs of watching streaming video are rising, and for many people can approach what they were paying on their cable bill. Some viewers feel like they finally broke free of the cable bundle only to watch it re-forming between their eyes. New major video apps are launched, shut down, and rebranded on a regular basis, and people might sign up to a service to watch particular content only to have it disappear without warning.”

For the next several years at least, league and network executives both expect to see a hybrid approach where games continue to coexist on both traditional linear television and streaming,” Ourand says. “The concept of exclusivity will not be as strict, with games available on both platforms as the business waits to see how the market shakes out.” The trend toward streaming is unmistakable,” he says: “But even as networks and leagues continue to migrate more games to streaming services, the sports business still values the reach provided by traditional linear television. Every single NFL game will be available on broadcast television through 2033. Even the games on Amazon Prime and Peacock have to be carried by a local over-the-air channel in the markets of the participating teams. The NBA has made it clear that it wants to keep its NBA Finals on broadcast television. MLB and NHL playoffs will remain on traditional linear television throughout their contracts.”