European Court Goes Against World Cup On Pay TV

Lately, many in Congress have come to view their roles vis-à-vis the TV business as protecting consumers against service disruptions and escalating bills. So, no doubt they’ll continue to hold hearings and introduce bills. But to what end?

Sure, if station blackouts result in the current Time Warner Cable-CBS dispute, executives from the parties might find themselves testifying before a committee soon after. And, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) will continue to push a la carte pricing for cable networks and pick up some support from colleagues as he did this week from Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).



But it’s difficult to envision any meaningful legislation coming. These issues have percolated for a while. Stasis has resulted.

As important as TV is to American life, it's no longer anything close to a public trust. Congress let that train blaze out of the station years ago. Retransmission consent and a la carte really are business-to-business matters. And, consumers get squeezed in the middle of these type of disputes in various industries all the time.

In TV land, one might think the principal matter that might get Congress to move swiftly would be the Super Bowl moving to cable. That wouldn’t happen until at least the next decade and the NFL is probably too smart to open that can of worms. But, previous ESPN chief George Bodenheimer didn’t knock down the possibility in light of all the top-tier sports events already chasing cable cash.

That rush might make one appreciate what happened in Europe earlier this month. A top court stood up to the sports-media complex, ruling countries have the right to ensure all 64 World Cup games remain on free TV. Take that free market.

FIFA, the governing body of soccer, had wanted to sell as many as 42 of the games to pay-TV operators in countries across the continent. But the top European Union court held that Great Britain and Belgium could prevent the shift of any games off free TV -- along with the other 26 E.U. members.

FIFA does have a policy ensuring at least 22 games are free per country, including all games with the home team, the opening match of the tournament, the semifinals and the finals.

For now.

Would that be in perpetuity? When does enough money convince it to turn 22 games into 42?

FIFA, which already takes in a fortune for the World Cup, condemned the court ruling, saying “such market distortion” could hurt its ability to “generate funds” to invest in the “global development of the game.”

The free-TV ruling also applied to games for the entire European Championship, the soccer tournament that crowns a continent-wide champion every four years. UEFA, which runs that event, was also miffed.

The ruling reduces the number of programmers that can bid for rights to both tournaments, which will likely drive prices down. It reduces the likelihood that a Rupert Murdoch-controlled satellite service can swoop in and acquire rights to the bulk of the World Cup.

Notably, games involving Brazil -- if you believe the saying it is everybody’s second-favorite team.

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