FCC moves to drop sports blackout rules

The Federal Communications Commission unveiled a proposal Thursday to drop decades-old blackout regulations for televised sports.
 

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The draft regulations would effectively cancel a 1975 rule prohibiting cable and satellite TV providers from televising sports events that are blacked out on local broadcast television stations.

“Elimination of the sports blackout rules alone likely would not end sports blackouts, but it would leave sports carriage issues to private solutions negotiated by the interested parties in light of current market conditions and eliminate unnecessary regulation,” the agency said in a 48-page proposed rule.

The proposal will be published in Friday’s Federal Register, starting the clock on a 30-day public comment period that is certain to draw arguments from both sides of the issue. The agency will review all submissions before proceeding with a final regulation.

The action would most notably affect the NFL, which requires broadcasters to black out games if the local team does not sell out the stadium. The rules were originally meant to ensure equal access to sporting events for people without satellite or cable television.

“The rationale underpinning the rules was to ensure to the greatest extent possible the continued availability of sports telecasts to the public,” the agency said. “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 action follows a unanimous vote by the commission in December to consider a proposal to drop the rules.

Eliminating the regulations would not prohibit blackouts, as sporting leagues and television broadcasters could still agree to restrict access.

But proponents of the measure say the FCC’s rules are arcane and have the effect of potentially denying fans a chance to see their favorite teams play.

Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) last year introduced legislation designed to end blackouts.

The NFL and the National Association of Broadcasters, however, oppose changing the current regulations.

“We're concerned that the FCC proposal may hasten the migration of sports to pay-TV platforms, and will disadvantage the growing number of people who rely on free, over-the-air television as their primary source for sports,” NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said following last month’s FCC vote.