Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) has introduced a resolution urging the Justice Department to study the impact of cable on existing antitrust laws regarding the National Football League and to review the NFL's latest television contract.
At the core of Specter's concern is the inclusion of ESPN in the latest NFL television contract -- the first time cable has acquired rights to NFL games -- and the prospect of more games in the future moving from free television to cable "or any other nonfree format."
The Senate Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust and monopolies will hold a hearing Tuesday, with NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle expected to testify.
The NFL, in order to get a network contract, was forced to get an antitrust exemption in 1961 because of an existing adverse decision. In granting the exemption through the Sports Broadcasting Act, Congress limited it -- without fully defining -- to the use of "sponsored telecasting." Specter's focus on ESPN is based on his claim the cable network is not sponsored telecasting, that the term meant only "free network television."
"The senator's attitude is this -- the league is what it is today because it came to Congress in 1961 and requested an antitrust exemption," said Neal Manne, Specter's chief of staff. "Cable really wasn't in the mix in 1961. Specter is concerned because the league had stated repeatedly that cable wasn't in its future . . . He's concerned that the league might continue moving games off of free TV."
Andrew Brilliant of ESPN said: "We don't think we did anything the least bit unlawful, and we don't think the NFL violated any antitrust law in granting us the rights . . . I don't know that we're taking anything away from the public. I'd argue that we're giving them something . . . "
ESPN will televise eight NFL games each of the next three years.