FCC: Cablevision/MSG Network Violated Program-Access Rules

The FCC's Media Bureau has ruled that Cablevision/Madison Square Garden Network violated FCC program access rules by withholding HD versions of MSG and MSG-Plus from Verizon and AT&T.

The FCC ruled that it was an "unfair act" that "had the effect" of "significantly hindering AT&T [and Verizon] from providing a competing video service."

The FCC said MSG had 30 days to make the nets available to both  AT&T and Verizon on reasonable terms and conditions.

Verizon and AT&T said it was a win for consumers, while Cablevision said the FCC's Media Bureau had not gotten its facts straight.

The decisions follow the FCC's move to close the so-called terrestrial loophole/exemption that had prevented access complaints against withholding of affiliated terrestrially-delivered networks. The FCC gave AT&T and Verizon a chance to refile their complaints under a new standard of unfairness.

The rules also made clear that HD and standard-def channels are separate entities for the purposes of access. Verizon carried the SD versions of the channels, but Cablevision had not made the HD versions available.

In separate complaints, Verizon and AT&T had asked the Federal Communications Commission to force Cablevision Systems and Madison Square Garden to sell HD feeds of MSG Network and MSG Plus to the telco for its FiOS TV service in the New York area.

The FCC last year removed the exemption of terrestrially delivered networks like MSG from program-access requirements.

Both AT&T and Verizon complaints involved carriage of HD signals in Connecticut. Both carry the SD feeds of MSG and MSG Plus, which between them hold local TV rights to the National Basketball Association's New York Knicks, and the National Hockey League's New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders.

"The FCC's decision means that Cablevision no longer can withhold popular programming, such as HD sports programming, from its competitors," said AT&T in a statement. "We look forward to bringing to our customers this ‘must have' content, and enhancing AT&T's U-Verse service to better compete against the cable companies. We are pleased the FCC has resolved this dispute in favor of competition and consumers."

Mike Glover, Verizon SVP and deputy general counsel, said in a statement: "The Federal Communications Commission's decision creates new opportunities for consumers and video competition. Consumers have made it clear they want a quality alternative to the cable incumbent, and that regional sports networks in high-definition are an important part of the video-service experience. With this FCC ruling, consumers who have chosen or want to choose a video-service competitor, like Verizon FiOS, will gain access to MSG and MSG-Plus in HD, giving fans of the Knicks, Rangers, Sabres and other teams new video choices that best meets their needs. As well, competition will be on a more level playing field in the New York/New Jersey region. Verizon looks forward to working with MSG to make these sports networks available in high-definition soon."

"Today's disappointing rulings do not appear to be based on the facts," said Cablevision in a statement. "The data clearly demonstrates that there has been no competitive harm to the nation's two largest phone companies as a result of not having two HD channels they already receive in SD. New York is the most competitive market in the country and this decision only hurts fair competition and consumers. Instead of competing on the merits in the marketplace, Verizon and AT&T are manipulating federal law to gain an unfair advantage and we have every intention of pursuing relief in the courts."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.