The FCC May End Its Sports Blackout Rules

Under current proposal, change would only apply to national cable broadcasts

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What started as a rule to protect professional sports teams has now turned into a tussle between network and cable television.

While the FCC debates lifting its nearly 40-year-old rule that blacks out sports programming in local markets—whether on network or cable channels—when the event fails to sell out, the change may only apply to national cable broadcasts. Which, not surprisingly, has drawn the ire of the National Association of Broadcasters.

The rule originally served the professional sports teams that once relied so heavily on ticket sales for revenue. If fans could simply stay home and watch the game on television, why the need to go and spend money at the stadium, right? The FCC rule forced a blackout of the game in the local market if not all the seats were sold. That rule extended into cable television.

“Changes in the marketplace have raised questions about whether these rules are still in the public interest, particularly at a time when high ticket prices and the economy make it difficult for many sports fans to attend games,” says acting FCC Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn in a statement. “Elimination of our sports blackout rules will not prevent the sports leagues, broadcasters and cable and satellite providers from privately negotiating agreements to black out certain sports events.”

She adds that the FCC shouldn’t remain involved in an area it isn’t needed. But NAB executive vice president of communications Dennis Wharton says in a statement that by the FCC stepping away will hurt the networks with a hastening of sports programming to pay-TV platforms.

“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 serve to community.”