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FCC to review NFL's TV blackout rules

Quarterback Tim Tebow plays for the NFL's Denver Broncos.

A coalition of angry sports fans has succeeded in getting the Federal Communications Commission to weigh in on the National Football League's so-called blackout rules.

The blackout rules prohibit the showing of a football game on television in the home team's city if the game is not sold out. In other words, if a San Diego Chargers game does not pack the stadium, the game will not be available on television in San Diego.

When the rules took effect some four decades ago, they applied to local broadcasters. However, as more customers got their television through pay-TV services, the FCC passed a rule that requiring cable and satellite operators to comply as well. That means that if the local TV station can't carry a game, the local cable or satellite operator can't carry it either. 

The Sports Fan Coalition, which is leading the charge at the FCC, is looking to gut the cable portion of the blackout rules, which is the only part the regulatory agency has any control over. In its petition against the rule, the coalition argued that the rising cost of going to a football game, coupled with the bad economy, makes getting to the stadium a challenge for average Americans.

FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell is on board with the idea.

“I am delighted that the Media Bureau is requesting comment on a petition seeking elimination of the commission’s rules that prohibit multichannel video programming distributors from carrying a sporting event in a community if it is blacked out by the local broadcast station," he said.

The NFL is no fan of getting rid of the blackout rules. A spokesman noted that it's the only sports league that broadcasts all its regular-season and playoff games on free over-the-air television. (Although cable channels ESPN and NFL Network carry games, if the Chargers and the Bills are playing, the game would be available in the teams' hometowns of San Diego and Buffalo.) Only 6% of the games this season were blacked out, the NFL said.

Although local over-the-air stations wouldn't mind if the blackout rule goes away, they are not likely to cross the NFL and will almost certainly join the league in fighting any push by the government to allow cable and satellite operators to do what they cannot do.

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-- Joe Flint

Photo: Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow. Credit: Chris Schneider / Associated Press

 
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