FCC WIll Consider Ending Sports Blackout Rule

The 40-year-old rule blocks cable and satellite providers from showing low-attendance games

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The Federal Communications Commission voted Wednesday to consider ending a rule barring cable and satellite providers from airing professional sports games when attendance at individual games dips below a certain point, according to a Commission document.

The FCC’s blackout rule requires cable and satellite companies to abide by agreements struck between broadcasters and sports leagues barring networks from airing local games with too few fans in the crowd. Many leagues, including the National Football League, made broadcasters sign such agreements in the pre-cable era to protect their ticket sales. The FCC later made its blackout rule later to protect broadcasters, who feared cable and satellite providers would be able to air games they weren’t able to show in local markets.

Cable and satellite providers — along with sports fans and consumer advocacy groups — have long fought the blackout rule, arguing that it’s outdated and ending the rule would have a negligible effect on ticket sales. Broadcasters, however, worry that a rule change could mean they’ll still be unable to carry certain games in local markets, giving pay TV providers a competitive advantage.

Public Access, an interest group which first lobbied the FCC to ditch the blackout rule alongside other organizations in 2011, welcomed the agency’s proposal as a pro-consumer move. “It’s great to see the Commission move to eliminate the sports blackout rules,” said Public Knowledge Senior Staff Attorney John Bergmayer in a statement. “These needless policies restrict what viewers can watch, and what programming cable systems can carry, in the name of protecting local broadcasters from competition and boosting ticket sales to sporting events.”

The FCC’s next step will be opening the proposed rule change to public comment. It’s unlikely the commission will make any final decision on the blackout rule until sometime next year at the earliest. If the FCC eventually puts an end to the blackout rule, sports leagues could still attempt to place blackouts on television providers via private deals.