Clyburn’s Last Acts as FCC Chair Include Proposal to Eliminate Sports Blackout Rule

She made the most of her time in charge

No one can ever say that acting Federal Communications Commission chairwoman Mignon Clyburn was a benchwarmer during the six months she served as acting chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission. On Thursday and Friday, her final two days heading up the FCC, Clyburn circulated a number of rulemakings, including a proposal to end the sports blackout rule.

Clyburn also opened up a rulemaking to examine ways to revitalize the AM radio band, a project championed by commissioner Ajit Pai, and proposed minor changes to the CALM Act that prohibits loud commercials.

How quick the FCC gets to all three items will be up to incoming FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, who is being sworn in today.

She Of the three items, the sports blackout rule is getting the most attention. The decades-old rule prohibits a cable or satellite operator from carrying an NFL game if the local TV broadcast of the game is blocked out because of low attendance at the game.

For nearly two years the Sports Fan Coalition has advocated ending the rule. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) have also called for an end to the rule. The FCC took tentative steps a year ago to examine the rule, but didn't commence a rulemaking.

While there were more than a dozen blackouts in 2012, eliminating the rule doesn't guarantee there won't be blackouts; the NFL is still free to negotiate with broadcasters and pay TV services however it wants, as Clyburn pointed out in her statement late Friday. So ending the rule may not do as much as fans would like. 

"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," Clyburn said in a statement. "Elimination of our sports blackout rules will not prevent the sports leagues, broadcasters, and cable and satellite providers from privately negotiating agreements to black out certain sports events."

As rare as sports blackouts are, broadcasters fear that lifting the rule would lead to adverse consequences for broadcasters by hastening the migration of sports to pay-TV platforms and punishing viewers that rely on over-the-air TV for sports coverage. "Allowing importation of sports programming on pay-TV platforms while denying that same programming to broadcast-only homes would erode the economic underpinning that sustains local broadcasting and our service to community," said National Association of Broadcasters evp Dennis Wharton.

The NFL stands with the broadcasters, arguing that the rule supports the public interest in maintaining sports on free broadcast TV.