Senators Push FCC Vote On Sports Blackout Rules

A pair of senior senators has asked FCC chairman Tom Wheeler to vote on a final order eliminating its sports blackout rules by the beginning of August.

In a letter to the chairman, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said that given that the FCC gave notice back in December 2013 that it thought the rules should go, it was time to move expeditiously to follow through—it voted unanimously for a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking eliminating them.

The NFL prevents the TV broadcast of any game not sold out 72 hours before game time. The FCC blackout rules backstop the league by preventing cable or satellite operators from airing a game blacked out on broadcast TV. In December, it proposed eliminating that rule and leaving blackouts to private negotiations among rightsholders and distributors.

"We agree wholeheartedly with the Commission that 'the sports blackout rules have become obsolete,'" they wrote, "and we believe the record clearly supports the FCC's tentative conclusions in favor of eliminating this unnecessary rule...We ask that you commit to bringing the final order to a vote within the next 60 days [the letter was dated June 2]."

McCain and Blumenthal were tapped as MVPs (most valuable policymakers) by the Sports Fans Coalition, which pushed the FCC to get rid of its blackout rules and the NFL to get rid of its blackout policy. Unlike the FCC, the league has said it has no plans to end its blackout policy.

The FCC decision to propose eliminating the blackout rules 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 atop the commission.

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 McCain has tried to force that hand as well, introducing a bill, 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.

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.