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FCC's Wheeler: Sack the Sports Blackout Rules

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said Tuesday he will schedule a vote Sept. 30 on getting rid of the FCC's sports blackout rules. The commissioners in December 2013 voted tentatively, and unanimously, to scrap the rules.

In a blog post, Wheeler said the NFL "should no longer be able to hide behind government rules that punish loyal fans."

The rules backstop NFL blackout policies that prevent the importation by cable or satellite operators of distant-signal versions of NFL games blacked out in the home market due insufficient ticket sales.

Without the rules, the NFL can still write those blackouts into their contracts, but Wheeler says the FCC is not going to play along. "Today, we are blowing the whistle on this anti-fan practice," he said.

Wheeler signaled he was not convinced by league arguments that the rule is good for fans and that its absence could mean the end of pro football on free TV. "To hear the NFL describe it, you would think that putting a game on CBS, NBC or Fox was a money-losing proposition instead of a highly profitable multi-billion dollar business," he wrote. "If the league truly has the best interest of millions of American fans at heart, they could simply commit to staying on network television in perpetuity."

"The bottom line is the NFL no longer needs the government's help to remain viable. And we at the FCC shouldn't be complicit in preventing sports fans from watching their favorite teams on TV," he concluded. "It's time to sack the sports blackout rules for good."

It's not just the NFL fighting for the rules. Broadcasters have warned that the FCC could be in danger of balkanizing sports programming and driving it to "increasingly expensive pay cable networks." The AFL-CIO, Congressional Black Caucus, and Rainbow PUSH have all argued for retaining the rules and the stadium-related jobs they say could be threatened.