FCC Votes to Sunset Program Access Rules

Cable companies no longer have to share programming if they don't want to

The Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously today to let expire a rule that required cable companies to make their programming available to rival pay TV providers.

Programming lineups at cable and satellite systems may never be the same. 

Smaller cable operators and the satellite companies fought vigorously to convince the FCC to renew the so-called program access rules, while the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, whose members include Comcast and Time Warner Cable—owners of popular regional sports networks—would rather see the rules sunset.

Despite the controversy, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski probably had little choice but to let the 20-year-old ban against program exclusivity die. In 2010, the D.C. circuit court of appeals sent a strong message to the FCC that the rules' purpose to promote competition among pay TV providers, giving rise to new competitors DirecTV, Dish, Verizon and AT&T, had been achieved.

The FCC, however, tried in the final order to carve out some redress for cable operators that are denied access to coveted regional sports networks by setting up a case-by-case review. Supposedly, the FCC will send a strong message that cable companies that withhold certain "must have" programming could be seen as anticompetititve.

"The FCC is focused on promoting competition and protecting consumers in the evolving video market," 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."

Senate Commerce Committee chairman John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) is worried that the FCC's new complaint process against cable companies that lock up programming may not be enough. "If this new process does not deter anticompetitive behavior that harms consumers, Congress will need to consider whether it should restore appropriate safeguards," he said in a statement.

The FCC's final order has not yet been released.