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You've got to fight. For your right. To bowl games.

November 25, 2008 |  2:39 pm

NAB, broadcasters, Bowl Championship Series, BCS, Fox, ESPN, Congress
Doug Benc, Getty Images
What do businesses do when they get outbid for a contract? When they're broadcasters, they lobby Congress to throw out the results of the auction. That appears to be the strategy of the National Assn. of Broadcasters, whose TV board adopted a resolution today suggesting that there was something, well, un-American about a pay-TV network holding the exclusive rights to the major college football bowl games.

Last week, the Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN -- a network beamed into virtually every cable- and satellite-TV subscriber's homes -- won the rights to broadcast the Bowl Championship Series games from 2011 through 2014. Included in that package are the Rose Bowl and a bunch of less interesting contests played on or around New Year's Day. For football fans who don't subscribe to cable or satellite TV, this was at least as big a deal as when Monday Night Football moved to ESPN two years ago after 36 years on free TV. And for broadcasters like Fox, which reportedly bid $400 million to ESPN's $500 million, it wasn't just a big deal -- it was an attack on one of the citizenry's fundamental rights.

According to the NAB's news release:

"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 resolution states. "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."

You have to love the clever use of the phrase "publicly funded educational institutions" in close proximity to the word "disenfranchised." In other words, because teams from state schools such as The Ohio State University tend to be featured in these games, there's a reason for the federal government to intervene in what would otherwise be a purely private transaction. But if it does intervene on broadcasters' behalf, it would depress the prices that said publicly funded educational institutions could command for their TV rights. Given the choice between accommodating fans and maximizing bowl-game revenue, I'm guessing that the schools would choose the money.

Having grown up with the Buckeyes (in the twilight of Woody Hayes' career), I love watching my team get stomped play in bowl games. And I don't subscribe to cable or satellite, so if the game's not on free TV, chances are I won't be watching. Nevertheless, I think it would be ridiculous for Congress to intervene on my behalf. First, it's television. Second, the number of people who rely on over-the-air signals is dwindling -- the A.C. Nielsen company estimated only 14 million households at the beginning of the year, down from about 20 million just five years ago. Third, no one's stopping rabbit-ear users like me from signing up for cable or satellite service, should we decide that a bowl game's worth the, oh, $600 a year it costs for basic pay-TV.

The heart of the matter isn't that rights are being usurped by Greedy Consolidated Media Giants. It's that ESPN -- which, incidentally, is part of the same corporate family as ABC -- can pay more for the rights to BCS games (and other major sporting events) than broadcasters can. Maybe it's extracting more money in advertising and subscription fees than its competitors are. Maybe it's operating with thinner margins. Or maybe it's just making some very bad bets. Whatever. That's what happens in a competitive market for content. And as Americans, we like competition, even when we're not crazy about the outcome. Unless, of course, it involves a major bank failing or an automaker going bankrupt....

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