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

Fans reacts to a live broadcast the MLB baseball World Series game 4 between the San Francisco Giants and Detroit Tigers at Civic Center Pla
Fans reacts to a live broadcast the MLB baseball World Series game 4 between the San Francisco Giants and Detroit Tigers at Civic Center Pla

By Alina Selyukh

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Federal Communications Commission is considering whether to eliminate a decades-old rule that prohibited broadcasting of some professional sporting events, often NFL football games, in their home markets.

The FCC said on Friday its members are reviewing a proposal to eliminate the nearly 40-year-old rule that was originally meant to ensure broadcasts of sports games did not hurt local ticket sales.

"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," FCC acting Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn said in a statement.

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

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

The rules also are unrelated to some high-profile longer-lasting blackouts that are prompted by disagreements over the fees that TV operators pay programmers to carry their channels, such as the one this summer between CBS and Time Warner Cable.

The sports blackout rules have faced mounting criticism in recent years for being outdated.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

However, broadcasters have been an influential opponent of elimination of the FCC rules, and criticized Friday's announcement.

They point out that the rule prevents cable and satellite providers from offering games that may be blacked out in local markets and that without such a rule, the games would be available only to cable and satellite TV customers and not those relying on free TV.

"Sports blackouts are exceedingly rare, and NAB dislikes these disruptions as much as our viewers," the National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton said in a statement on Friday.

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

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

(Reporting by Alina Selyukh; Editing by Ros Krasny, Leslie Gevirtz and Ken Wills)

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