U.S. regulator considers end to sports broadcast blackout rule


By Alina Selyukh

WASHINGTON, Nov 1 (Reuters) - The Federal CommunicationsCommission is considering whether to eliminate a decades-oldrule that prohibited broadcasting of some professional sportingevents, often NFL football games, in their home markets.

The FCC said on Friday its members are reviewing a proposalto eliminate the nearly 40-year-old rule that was originallymeant to ensure broadcasts of sports games did not hurt localticket sales.

"Changes in the marketplace have raised questions aboutwhether these rules are still in the public interest,particularly at a time when high ticket prices and the economymake it difficult for many sports fans to attend games," FCCacting Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn said in a statement.

The FCC will study whether the rules "remain justified" andcould eventually take them off the books. The sports leagues,broadcasters and cable and satellite service providers couldstill privately negotiate blackout agreements.

It is often such private agreements, and not thecommission's rules, that prompt home game blackouts, accordingto the FCC.

The rules also are unrelated to some high-profilelonger-lasting blackouts that are prompted by disagreements overthe fees that TV operators pay programmers to carry theirchannels, such as the one this summer between CBS andTime Warner Cable.

The sports blackout rules have faced mounting criticism inrecent years for being outdated. A group called the Sports FansCoalition, which received backing from Verizon and TimeWarner Cable, petitioned the FCC in 2011 to end the rules andreceived support from several consumer interest groups.

However, broadcasters have been an influential opponent ofelimination of the FCC rules, and criticized Friday'sannouncement.

They point out that the rule prevents cable and satelliteproviders from offering games that may be blacked out in localmarkets and that without such a rule, the games would beavailable only to cable and satellite TV customers and not thoserelying on free TV.

"Sports blackouts are exceedingly rare, and NAB dislikesthese disruptions as much as our viewers," the NationalAssociation of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton said in astatement on Friday.

"However, we're concerned that today's proposal may hastenthe migration of sports to pay-TV platforms, and willdisadvantage the growing number of people who rely on free,over-the-air television," and could undermine the economichealth of local broadcasters.

Clyburn said she circulated her proposal to the other FCCcommissioners on Friday, her last day as acting chief of theagency. Tom Wheeler, a telecom industry veteran and former cableand wireless top lobbyist, is expected to take over the FCC onMonday after the Senate confirmed him this week.

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