The Federal Communications Commission on Friday decided to free cable operators from obligations to provide non-sports cable channels they own to rival satellite and phone companies that also provide video services.

(Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

By allowing those programs to expire, the FCC freed cable companies from obligations to license “must-see” programming. But even after the change, cable channels will have to provide sports programming they own.

“The FCC is focused on promoting competition and protecting consumers in the evolving video market,” FCC Chairman Julius 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.”
But some lawmakers and public interest groups expressed concern. They said that by relaxing cable rules, a company such as Comcast or Time Warner Cable could decide to withhold sports or other channels they may own from companies such as Dish Network or Verizon’s FiOs.

Cable channels own more than 50 regional sports channel. And consumers have been caught in the middle of programming disputes on program access in some

The FCC’s decision comes at a time when “incumbent cable operators wield so much power over traditional pay-television services and online video options,” said Matt Wood, Free Press’ policy director.

“We hope there will be some continued protection for cable sports programming and other must-have shows, which cable companies have so often denied to satellite customers in cities from Philadelphia to Portland,” Wood said.

The rules have been panned by cable providers who say the landscape for video has dramatically changed since Congress passed the ban on exclusive contracts for content by cable firms. They point to online rivals such as Netflix, Amazon and Apple as evidence that the market for video entertainment is competitive.