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A swing and a miss

Just because Sen. John Kerry can't watch baseball games on demand doesn't mean that it's a federal issue.

March 07, 2007

MEMO TO SEN. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin J. Martin: Baseball is the national pastime, not the nationalized one.

Kerry and Martin are crying foul over a deal being negotiated by Major League Baseball and DirecTV, the leading satellite service in the country. The agreement would sell the TV rights to "out of market" games -- the ones played by non-hometown teams -- exclusively to DirecTV. The same package is available today to an estimated 75 million subscribers to the various cable TV and satellite systems; the pending deal would cut that number to DirecTV's universe of 15 million customers. At the same time, the deal would create a new, 24-hour baseball channel on DirecTV.

Kerry, playing the populist card like the presidential candidate he used to be, has ginned up a Senate hearing to determine whether Congress should step in. "I have serious problems with any mega-deal that makes it harder for people across the country to follow their favorite baseball team," he said last month. At Kerry's request, Martin launched an inquiry to determine whether new laws were needed to protect fans.

Evidently, we've come quite a long way since 1992, when Congress ordered the FCC to make sure cable operators such as Comcast and Time Warner Cable didn't withhold the programs and networks they owned (e.g., a regional sports network or Time Warner's HBO) from the fledgling satellite industry. Now it's DirecTV, which still has a fraction of the customers that cable does, with too much power? Although the service is controlled by media giant News Corp., there's no unholy combination here of content provider and distributor. Instead, the proposed deal involves a copyright owner -- Major League Baseball -- and its ability to sell the rights to its programs to whomever it wishes. It's no different from the National Football League moving "Monday Night Football" from free TV (ABC) to cable (ESPN).

Nor is there any public entitlement to televised baseball. Yes, fans who want to watch out-of-market games but who aren't DirecTV subscribers would be inconvenienced by the pending deal. Those who won't or can't switch to the satellite service can sign up for Major League Baseball's online broadcasts, which the league says will have the same picture quality as conventional TV. Of course, the webcasts wouldn't deliver the same experience unless viewers had a high-speed Internet line and a PC connected to their TV. Everyone else would have to settle for watching games on their computers or not watching them at all.

Is this a bad thing for fans? Probably. Is it a bad thing for the game? That's for the league to decide, not Congress or the FCC. The proposed deal is similar to the exclusive ones DirecTV has struck with the NFL and NASCAR, neither of which brought down Washington's regulatory fist. Kerry and Martin should stay in the bleachers and let the business of baseball operate like a business.

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