In member states of the European Union, the answer is yes, sort of.  I picked up this item from a recent New York Times report about the state of broadcast rights regarding the World Cup finals:

European cultural regulations still require key games of national interest to be shown on free television. Generally, those include the final, the semifinals and any match involving the home team in its domestic market. In Britain, however, the entire tournament is subject to such rules, so the World Cup broadcasts will be shared between the publicly owned British Broadcasting Corp. and a free commercial broadcaster, ITV.

“Whenever you talk about the World Cup being on pay TV, lurking at the back of your mind is concern that some politician will say, ‘This is terrible, the World Cup is part of our cultural heritage,”’ said Ross Biggam, director general of the Association of Commercial Television in Europe, which includes pay TV operators among its membership. “But there is already protection in place for that.”

I tracked the reference to the EU’s “Television Without Frontiers” Directive, formally known as the Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMSD). Commentary on the Directive reports the following, with respect to Article 14 (Major Events):

A Football World Cup final or the Olympic Games only on pay-TV, these are the scenarios which the EU wanted to prevent from happening.

Therefore, the AVMSD lays down framework conditions to enable Member States to ensure that broadcasters under its jurisdiction do not broadcast on an exclusive basis events of major importance for society in such a way as to deprive a substantial proportion of the public of the possibility of following such events. Each Member State is entitled to draw up a list of events which are seen as being of major importance for society. Besides that, on the basis of the principle of mutual recognition, Member States must ensure that broadcasters under their jurisdiction respect the lists of other Member States which notified them to the Commission.

The list of “major events” developed by Italy, for example, recites the following:

1. Summer and Winter Olimpic Games;
2. The final and all matches involving the national team in the football World Cup;
3. The final and all matches involving the national team in the football European Championship;
4. All official matches of the national football team;
5. The final and semi-final of the Champions League and UEFA Cup when italian teams are involved;
6. The Tour of Italy;
7. F1 Italian Grand Prix;
8. The Italian Music Festival of Sanremo.

It is tempting to imagine developing a comparable list for the United States — “events of major importance for society” — although it is unimaginable that Congress would dare legislate (let alone that the FCC would try to mandate) that broadcast television networks make these events available.  Telecommunications policy and cultural policy are just about as distant from one another in the US as they are aligned in the EU.  (As Brett Frischmann points out below, that distance complicates the FCC’s Open Internet proceeding.)

If one were to imagine a “major events” list for the US, it is just about unimaginable that “matches involving the national football team” (that’s the one with Landon Donovan as its current star, not any NFL team or the college football team of your choosing) would be placed on it.  (Fortunately for US football fans, every World Cup finals match will be available on ABC, ESPN, or ESPN2.)  Still, this is a fun game to play:  What sporting events involving US teams or athletes are so fundamental to American culture that they should be accessible to anyone with a television receiver?  What non-sporting events should be listed?

A start, from the wide, wide world of sports:

1.  Super Bowl;
2.  World Series games;
3.  Indianapolis 500;
4.  Daytona 500;

Add yours in the comments.

One Thought to “Is There a Right to Watch the World Cup on TV?”

  1. Jake Linford

    The Kentucky Derby seems to be a natural, as a cultural institution. The Final Four of the NCAA Tournament also seems important. For me, it’s the NBA Finals, but I recognize I’m in the minority there.

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