Broadcasters fear losing free sports telecasts

When FOX dropped out of the race to retain broadcast rights to the BCS college football championship series games late last year, broadcasters became fearful of what appears to be an inevitable trend. Major sporting events are quickly migrating away from free, over-the-air TV to pay television.

ESPN took the four-year rights to the BCS games for $495 million. FOX, who carries the games until 2010, offered $385 million. FOX said it simply couldn’t compete with cable with only ad-based revenue streams.

The NAB, the main trade group for the broadcasters, is taking aim at the move of the BCS games to ESPN. After the FOX move, it voted to adopt a resolution advocating “free access to major televised sporting events.”

“Broadcasters continue to support the rights of all Americans to have free access to telecasts of major sporting events, particularly those of publicly funded educational institutions,” the NAB resolution said.

In simpler times, members of Congress and the FCC might have taken a harder position in favor of free televised sports. But now, with the towering economic struggles and other world problems bearing down, sports television is a relatively small issue.

Besides, ESPN, one of the most popular pay television services, is already in 90 million homes. That number is expected to increase after Feb. 17, when analog television is turned off in the United States.

With the steady migration of programming and viewers to pay television, it is probably too late for the NAB to be much help anyway. “The NAB Television board of directors hereby directs NAB staff to work with policymakers to educate them on the importance of ensuring that no segments of society are disenfranchised from this highly valued programming,” the board said.