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FCC mulls killing sports TV blackout rule

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Four of five FCC commissioners,  including Chairman Tom Wheeler, have announced publicly that they are in favor of ending the policy. Known as the sports blackout rule, the policy is supported by the broadcasters and the National Football League (NFL).  

The blackout rule has banned cable and satellite providers from running sports games on home TVs if the game's tickets are not sold out or at least have a good selling record. If the rule is repealed, the NFL and TV broadcasting companies could still agree on a blackout but only on private terms.

The rule, which has affected a lot of pro football games, is also sometimes referred to as the NFL blackout rule. The whole idea revolves around encouraging people to go to stadiums and watch the games live. Doing so would allow them to help support the NFL financially.

"Believe it or not, the league is actually arguing that it's fighting to preserve the FCC's sports blackout rules for the sake of the fans," said Wheeler. "To hear the NFL describe it, you would think that putting a game on CBS, NBC or Fox was a money-losing proposition instead of a highly profitable multi-billion dollar business."

According to the NFL, only two NFL games, which is less than one percent of the total games played, were blacked out during the last game season because of the rule. This year, there were no blacked out games that were recorded. In a number of instances, some businesses extended a little help by purchasing large blocks of unsold tickets in order to avoid blackouts.

"The sports blackout rules are a bad hangover from the days when barely 40 percent of games sold out and gate receipts were the league's principal source of revenue," said Wheeler. "The NFL no longer needs the government's help to remain viable."

While the rule is applicable to all sports leagues, its effect is more obviously seen on the NFL. The reason is that football is the only one among the four major leagues that makes TV negotiations as a group. In hockey, basketball and baseball, each team negotiates TV contracts that would allow local television coverage of the game.

The NFL argues that by keeping the FCC blackout rule intact, the availability of games on broadcast TV can be increased.

"By ensuring that televising games will not reduce live attendance, the sports blackout rule encourages sports leagues to reach deals with broadcast networks," wrote NFL as it pleads to the commission.

At any rate, the NFL has a thin line of hope in preserving the blackout rule. Both Tom Wheeler and the Republican commissioners have already voiced their support on ending what they label as an outdated regulation.

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