Recently, a Senate Judiciary subcommittee questioned NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle on whether professional football would remain on free broadcast television. And earlier this year, Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation that would require major league baseball teams to broadcast at least half of their televised games on free TV in uncabled areas.
This legislative interest in broadcast rights, certain to reappear again and again in the coming years, is the product of a simple fact: More sporting events are shifting from free TV to cable, and some people are bent on stopping the flow.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) introduced a resolution urging the Justice Department to check the antitrust implications of the NFL going to cable for the first time in the form of eight regular-season games a year on ESPN over the next three years. Schumer's interest came after many New York Yankees games were shifted from WPIX-TV, which reaches 11 million homes, to SportsChannel, a regional pay-cable service that reaches 1 million homes.
The typical home viewer, especially one without access to cable or unable to afford cable, wants to know -- What can I do when games I used to watch for free are no longer available? That is very much the sentiment of the Association of Independent Television Stations (INTV), whose president, Preston Padden, said in a statement earlier this year: "In our view, it is unconscionable for cable to make consumers pay for the very same program events which broadcasters are prepared to make available to all viewers for free."
Padden's words will draw sympathy from many viewers -- it feeds off the feeling that the little guy is being run over by big profit-happy team owners and programmers -- but, at least from this corner, it seems to ignore a fundamental element of American business.
Edward Bennett Williams owns the Baltimore Orioles and Abe Pollin owns the Washington Bullets and Washington Capitals. If either decides that he could prosper more by televising all his team's games on free TV, no games on free TV, some combination thereof or whatever, then it is his business decision. The broadcast properties belong to the Orioles, Bullets and Capitals. Where they sell their rights is their business.
Likewise, if the NFL -- which has succeeded wildly by televising every game back to its home market through network TV -- decides it wishes to take an alternate route, then it should be free to do so. Perhaps the NFL, down the road, will turn completely to basic cable (ESPN) or premium pay TV (HBO) or pay-per-view. Again, the broadcast property belongs to the league and its teams, and how the rights are sold should be their business.
But New York state Sen. Nicholas Spano asked the state legislature to restore, at least partially, what he called the "sacred American right" of New York City residents to watch Yankees and Mets game on free TV.
Huh? There is no constitutional right to watch games at home. What if the Yankees put their games on TV and nobody watched? Are the Yankees obligated to make their product available to anyone who wants it? Are local stations obligated to carry the games?
The bottom line is: it should be a function of the marketplace. If teams alienate the public, then they can change their policy. If Pollin finds he is losing money from putting too many or too few games on TV, he will adjust accordingly.
Additionally, forcing a league or team to broadcast its games is essentially an appropriation of someone else's property. The mere fact that you or I enjoy someone else's property -- say, watching the Bullets on TV -- doesn't mean we have a vested interest in it. Where does it say that Padden's INTV membership, the independent stations, can make a profit off of a franchise without that franchise's blessing?
Now, the public is not completely powerless. As mentioned earlier, if a team's live gate is adversely affected by its TV policy, that policy is bound to change. Also, there is legislative clout that can be used for leverage. The state of Maryland, for instance, can tell Williams it won't build him a tax-supported stadium unless he guarantees a certain amount of games on free TV, or Prince George's County can threaten Pollin's tax break if he pulls the Bullets or Capitals off the tube. But those owners can threaten to take their business elsewhere -- as Pollin did with the Capitals once -- and those owners would be within their rights (unless some type of franchise-removal restrictions become law).
Likewise, major league baseball or the NFL -- which is likely to keep most of its games on network television for the foreseeable future -- would run into massive congressional resistance over any attempts to shift away from free TV. It again would be a question of leveraging. Could a baseball franchise be stripped of its special exemption from federal antitrust laws if it doesn't broadcast on free TV? Perhaps. Could Congress get angered enough at the NFL for moving away from network television that it looks at whatever limited antitrust exemptions the league has? Perhaps.
The teams hold the upper hand. Viewers have impact through their viewing and ticket-buying decisions and, indirectly, hold some legislative clout. Maybe the Super Bowl or the World Series never will leave free TV; all we're saying is -- let the market dictate. It's guided us this far, and a republic filled with 19-inch color TV sets seems healthy enough.
The three networks will get about $60 million in rebates from the NFL to make up for lost advertising revenue during the players strike, the New York Times reported.