Specter hits NFL antitrust exemption
By Miriam Hill
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
WASHINGTON - Sen. Arlen Specter's hearing today was supposed to focus on whether cable companies such as Comcast Corp. can wield sports programming like a club to inhibit competition.
But at the end of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Specter turned the tables in a way that took a lot of heat off Comcast. The Pennsylvania Republican, who is chairman of the committee, said he would sponsor legislation to eliminate the antitrust exemption that allows the National Football League to negotiate broadcast rights for all of its 32 teams.
Specter cited a list of grievances against the NFL, including its decision to move Monday Night Football from ABC to ESPN, a cable channel, and moves by teams such as the Colts from Baltimore to Indianapolis.
That history represented a philosophy of "fans be damned," he said. The programming changes suggest an attitude of "consumers be damned."
"Wouldn't consumers be better off if teams could negotiate?" Specter asked. "This is the NFL exerting its power right down to the last nickel."
In a written statement, the NFL said it was sensitive to Specter's concerns, but added that there was no basis for repealing its antitrust exemption. The league also defended its television practices as "consistent with the public interest and as delivering fans extraordinary amounts of programming at little or no cost."
The NFL Network is suing Comcast over the Philadelphia cable company's refusal to carry eight late-season football games in a programming tier widely available to customers. Comcast wants to put those games in its sports tier, which costs $5 more monthly, to compensate for higher fees the NFL wants to charge.
Comcast also has complained that it cannot buy rights to NFL Sunday Ticket, a popular package of games available only to DirecTV subscribers.
Comcast executive vice president David L. Cohen, who also testified today, said he was not ready to agree that the NFL should lose its antitrust exemption.
It is not clear whether Specter's proposed legislation will go anywhere. When Democrats take control of the Senate in January, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) will replace Specter as committee chairman.
Specter said he would consider proposing that Comcast and other cable companies no longer be allowed to refuse to share sports programming with satellite competitors.
He said he was pleased to see that Comcast had agreed to sell its SportsNet content, which includes Phillies, Flyers and Sixers games, to Verizon Communications Inc. Verizon has started selling TV service in the Philadelphia region.
Cohen said his company agreed to share that content in part because it did not think Verizon would compete with Comcast in the city of Philadelphia. He also cited DirecTV's exclusive rights to NFL Sunday ticket.