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'Refs' side with the FCC

Court backs rule to widen cable access to sports teams.

A federal rule that could help bring Phillies baseball, Knicks basketball, and other sports to more television viewers withstood a challenge from Cablevision Systems Corp. in a court decision issued Friday.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington said the Federal Communications Commission acted within its rights in a January 2010 rule that aimed to make coverage of sports teams more widely available. Withholding sports programming by cable companies, such as Cablevision and Comcast Corp., can place competitors such as telephone companies and satellite providers at a "serious disadvantage," the judges said in a 3-0 ruling.

"We doubt that Philadelphia baseball fans would switch" to an alternative TV service "if doing so would mean they could no longer watch Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels take the mound," the court said in Judge David Tatel's 48-page opinion.

Comcast, of Philadelphia, withholds its SportsNet coverage of teams in Philadelphia from satellite providers DirecTV and Dish.

And AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. have complained to the FCC of not being able to buy access for their television services to sports programming controlled by Cablevision, of Bethpage, N.Y.

Friday's court decision "clears the way for the FCC to resolve pending program-access disputes and to ensure that the programming that is important to sports fans is available to them," Michael Glover, a Verizon senior vice president, said in an e-mail.

In its 2010 rule, the FCC said cable competitors were harmed when they were unable to get access to cable-owned sports shows.

The judges put one restriction on the rule, saying the FCC can't simply assume harm without looking at a particular complaint.