The top officials of three professional leagues and an executive of the NCAA yesterday urged Congress to adopt a law requiring cable television systems to get their approval before picking up sports events for transmission.
At the same time, the House Subcommittee on Communications was warned that such a law would destroy the budding cable television industry and ultimately hurt consumers.
The warning came from Ted Turner, owner of Atlanta's baseball Braves and basketball Hawks, who also happens to own one of the country's most successful cable systems, Super Station Channel 17 in Atlanta.
Decrying the "garbage on commercial networks," Turner said the proposed law "will stop cable dead. But even worse, it will stop the opportunity for American people to be better informed and educated."
The league and NCAA officials also cited consumer interests in arguing that cable systems should be stopped from picking up programs from as many distant stations as they want - usually by satellite or microwave - without the consent of the originating broadcasters and without direct compensation to them.
At present, cable television operators may pay a federal fee for the right to pick up programming. Under the proposed law, they would be required to get the approval of the broadcaster or the owner of the program. In the case of sports, negotiations would be through the league offices.
Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien, NHL President John Ziegler and the NCAA assistant executive director, Tom Hansen, said consumers might ultimately be hurt by the reduction or elimination of locally televised games, and by higher ticket prices, if the current system is not changed.
If there is a glut of televised games coming into a cable market, these officials said, gate attendance will drop and income from local, and possibly national, broadcasts will decrease significantly because of the overexposure.
In some cases, marginal teams or college programs that depend on local and national television revenues may find themselves facing bankruptcy, they said.
"Unless something is done to give us control over our own destinies," Kuhn said, "what you're going to see is teams pulling back on the number of games you see over the air (locally). Unless we see some positive solution . . . we would tend to look toward a solution whereby we go like the NFL - to network TV entirely."
Cable systems offer regular network programming in addition to their own special features and sports events, so the network-only NFL broadcasts are unaffected by the proposal that is part of a sweeping revision of communications laws Congress is considering.
NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle did not attend yesterday's session, but sent a letter saying the league supported the proposal, known as "retransmission consent."
O'Brien, who said there were 225 NBA games available through cable and regular television in New York last season, blamed the NBA's falling network ratings on overexposure on cable television.
"One of the principal arguments of the cable industry against legislation requiring program consent is that sports teams and leagues will utilize it to deny their programs to cable operators," O'Brien said.
But, he continued, echoing his colleagues, "The NBA, as well as other professional and collegiate sports leagues, regards the cable market as a potentially important and desirable outlet for sports events - depending on what games are shown at what time for what consideration."
Ziegler said the NHL, which has no national television contract, favors the proposed legislation because if it were passed the NHL could begin a cable television network for its games and increase team revenues.
"We're not talking about conflicts with live events in two dozen or so league cities," said Hansen. "We're talking about conflicts with live games in the 750 or so cities where our member schools are located."