Wheeler Signals Sports Blackout Rule Vote By Early Fall

Look for an FCC vote on eliminating the sports blackout rule within the next two or three months.

That was the signal from FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) in a June 17 letter, according to a copy supplied to B&C. Blumenthal, along with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), has led the Hill charge to get the rule off the books.

In a letter to Wheeler from June 4, Blumenthal and McCain had pushed for a vote, saying "'Now that the comment deadline has long passed [it was in March], we urge the Commission to move forward expeditiously on eliminating the sports blackout rule (SBR).'"

The rule prevents cable and satellite operators from carrying games blacked out on local broadcast TV due to league contracts protecting stadium ticket sales. Eliminating the rule would not eliminate contractual blackouts, but would remove the FCC backstop.

Wheeler did not say when the vote would be, but told Blumenthal he had asked the Media Bureau staff to complete their review of comments, including on the FCC's authority to eliminate it as well as the impact of eliminating it, and present their recommendations to the full commission, so it could act by "early fall."

Given that the vote on the proposal to eliminate the rule by that full commission was unanimous, that is likely to mean the rules will be gone by year's end, as FCC Commissioner Pai called for earlier in the day at an event in Buffalo.

Broadcasters and the National Football League have been lobbying hard against the change, saying it threatens the continued carriage of NFL games on broadcast TV. The rule applies to Major League Baseball, but most of those games are not on broadcast TV anyway.

The text of Wheeler's letter is below:

Dear Senator Blumenthal:

Thank you for your letter expressing your views on the Commission's pending proceeding regarding the sports blackout rule. I appreciate your long-standing interest in this issue.

As you indicate, the Commission proposed to eliminate the sports blackout rules in December 2013. In addition to assessing whether there is still a need for the rules, we also sought comment on our authority to eliminate, as well as the impact of such action. As you are aware, the Commission has acknowledged that repeal of the FCC's rules alone may not end blackouts, but it would leave carriage issues to privately negotiated arrangements. Comment periods ended in March, and the Bureau staff is reviewing the record developed.

I share your desire for a quick resolution to this pending proceeding. I have asked the Media Bureau staff to complete their review and to provide recommendations for the full Commission's consideration by early fall.

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.