Just about every video distributor that doesn’t own a sports network and can’t get the sports network owners to share access for love (ha!) or money was just given a small but not insignificant gift from the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC just changed the rules about how to complain about not getting access to sports network content.

Members of the American Cable Association have been complaining about an inability to get fair access to sports programming from their larger brethren that own regional sports networks, for example Cablevision and Comcast. But getting relief sometimes requires an exceedingly large, exceedingly loud squeaky wheel: enter Verizon.

Verizon, with its new FiOS video service, has been in an ongoing spat with Cablevision over access to Knicks and Rangers games in New York City and nearby markets. Last July, it filed a program access complaint with the FCC.

The FCC said it has new rules “for considering, on a case-by-case basis, complaints about the availability of terrestrially delivered, cable-affiliated programming, addressing what is commonly referred to as the ‘terrestrial loophole.’ These new rules allow DBS providers, telcos and other competitors to obtain more of the ‘must-have’ programming they need to offer viable alternative video packages to consumers and an opportunity to file complaints if the programming is withheld.”

The so-called “terrestrial loophole” is a reference to the Cable Act of 1996, which uses what turns out to have been loose language about what qualifies as a terrestrial signal and what a satellite signal is. Cable companies that own regional sports networks have used the loophole to justify not sharing access to that programming.

In other words, the FCC is not providing direct relief, but it is offering new rules that will give aggrieved parties a little more leverage as they negotiate for relief.

Specifically, the FCC order says, the new rules establish “procedures for the Commission’s consideration of requests for a temporary standstill of the price, terms and other conditions of an existing programming contract by a program access complainant seeking renewal of such a contract.”

In other words, if a pay-TV distributor currently has access to must-have programming from a sports network owner, it can’t lose it during a spat over contract conditions or fees.

Anyone with a current action involving such access can modify its complaint to be considered under the new rules, the FCC said.

Comcast is already set to fight the rule change, according to comments by Comcast executive vice president David Cohen, as quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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