Senators Seek End to TV Sports Blackouts


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A quintet of senators has told the FCC it is time for the FCC to try and end sports blackouts.

That came in a letter filed in response to a petition by the Sports Fans Coalition to lift the FCc's sports blackout rules. Those prohibit cable and satellite companies from carrying sports contests -- NFL games in particular -- that have been blacked out on broadcast TV due to contractual obligations.

"We believe it is time for the NFL's blackout policy to end," said Senators Tom Harkin, Debbie Stabenow, Frank Lautenberg, Richard Blumenthal and Sherrod Brown in a letter to the FCC. They also took aim at the "byzantine" restrictions on MLB games that result in blackouts.

Broadcasters would be OK if there were no blackouts, but lifting the FCC rule by itself would not change the contracts. It would, instead, allow MVPDs to import the games into a local broadcaster's market when they could not carry them  due to contractural restrictions.

While they were at it, the senators knocked retrans and program carriage impasse blackouts, pointing to the dispute between Time Warner Cable and MSG that has resulted in blackouts of Knicks, Rangers, Islanders, Sabres and Devils games and the since-resolved impasse between Sunbeam and DirecTV that blacked out an NFL divisional playoff game.

They asked the FCC to work with the league to end blackouts if the commission, like the Senators, concluded they did not serve the public interest.

The senators also urged the FCC to give "serious consideration" in its open rulemaking proposal on retrans reform to the harm fans suffer when companies can't reach agreement, and asked it to consider prohibiting the blackout of live sporting events during retrans disputes, leverage broadcasters aren't looking to give up.

The FCC in its rulemaking proposal at least entertained the idea of waiving other exclusivity rules -- syndex and network nonduplication 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.