FCC Votes To Eliminate Sports Blackout Rule

The FCC has voted unanimously for a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would eliminate the sports blackout rules.

The rules, adopted 40 years ago, prohibit cable and satellite providers from carrying the game if it is blacked out on over-the-air TV due to insufficient ticket sales.

The move comes as changes in the marketplace have raised questions about whether it is in the public interest to maintain the blackout, particularly at the current price of a ticket and the state of the economy, which was former acting chairwoman Mignon Clyburn's argument for teeing up the item for a vote during her busy tenure.

The elimination of the rule does not mean that sports leagues and broadcasters—or cable operators or satellite operators—can't strike private agreements that include such blackouts.

But a bill was introduced last month, the Furthering Access and Networks for Sports Act, or FANS Act, that would remove the antitrust exemption for any sports league that does not prohibit or limit sports blackouts in their video contracts, including during retransmission consent impasses.

The item has been on circulation for about six weeks, but according to an FCC source, it has now been approved by all the commissioners.

In October 2011, the Sports Fan Coalition asked the FCC to lift the ban saying it would be a "pro-fan, pro-consumer, deregulatory action serving the public interest by expanding the availability of sports to the public without adding any regulatory compliance costs to the private sector."

Media Access Project and Public Knowledge joined the coalition petition.

Broadcasters oppose excising the rule. "Sports blackouts are exceedingly rare, and NAB dislikes these disruptions as much as our viewers," said the National Association of Broadcasters in a statement, "However, we're concerned that today's 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. Allowing importation of sports programming on pay-TV platforms while denying that same programming to broadcast-only homes would erode the economic underpinning that sustains local broadcasting and our service to community."

The NFL agrees and has argued that getting rid of the rule would "undermine the retransmission-consent regime and give cable and satellite operators excessive leverage in retransmission-consent negotiations."

RELATED: Clyburn Proposes Ending FCC Sports Blackout Rules

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.