FCC moves to end sports blackouts

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The Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to consider a proposal that would end blackout rules for televised sporting events.

The rules, first adopted in 1975, prohibit cable and satellite TV providers from offering a sports event if the game is blacked out on local broadcast television stations.

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Dropping the rules would have the biggest impact on the NFL, which requires broadcasters to black out games if the local team does not sell out the stadium. The rules were originally intended to encourage fans to buy tickets to see the game live.

The FCC said it will review public comments before making a final decision on the regulations.

"Changes in the sports industry in the last four decades have called into question whether the sports blackout rules remain necessary to ensure the overall availability of sports programming to the general public," the commission wrote in the notice of proposed rule-making, which was approved Wednesday.

"In this proceeding, we will determine whether the sports blackout rules have become outdated due to marketplace changes since their adoption, and whether modification or elimination of those rules is appropriate."

Even if the FCC repeals its rules, it might not end sports blackouts altogether. Leagues, TV broadcasters and cable providers could still agree to contracts restricting access to games.

But critics of the FCC rules argue that the government shouldn't be involved in enforcing the blackouts.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) sent a letter to the FCC earlier this year urging the commission to consider dropping the blackout regulations. The lawmakers have also introduced legislation to pressure sports leagues and TV providers not to blackout games. 

"Hooray! Great victory for sports fans!" McCain tweeted on Wednesday.

"Existing blackout policies quite literally leave fans in the dark, and leagues or programmers that enforce them should not be rewarded with special regulatory status, antitrust exemptions, or taxpayer subsidies," Blumenthal said.

John Bermayer, an attorney for consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, said dropping the rules would be a "small, but important step."

"These needless policies restrict what viewers can watch, and what programming cable systems can carry, in the name of protecting local broadcasters from competition and boosting ticket sales to sporting events," he said in a statement.

But Brian McCarthy, a spokesman for the NFL, said the league strongly opposes any change in the FCC rule.

"We are on pace for a historic low number of blackouts since the policy was implemented 40 years ago," he said in a statement. 

"While affecting very few games the past decade, the blackout rule is very important in supporting NFL stadiums and the ability of NFL clubs to sell tickets and keeping our games attractive as television programming with large crowds."

McCathy noted that only one NFL game has been blacked out this season, down from 52 games 15 years ago.  

Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, called sports blackouts "exceedingly rare" and expressed concern that the FCC proposal would hurt sports fans who don't subscribe to cable. 

"Allowing importation of sports programming on pay-TV platforms while denying that same programming to free broadcast-only homes would erode the economic base of local television and hinder broadcasting as an engine for economic growth in local communities," he said. 

— This story was updated 3:42 p.m. and 5:28 p.m.

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