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FCC may look into banning future channel blackouts

In this file photo, people stand outside of

In this file photo, people stand outside of the ABC headquarters on February 24, 2010 in New York. Photo Credit: Getty

Channel blackouts like one that left 3 million Cablevision subscribers without ABC-TV last Sunday may become a thing of the past as regulators consider changing rules to ban the practice.

At a Senate hearing Friday, Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski said the agency will review the rules to keep them in step with current realities, citing last week's dispute over program costs between Disney Co.'s ABC and Cablevision - which serves New York, New Jersey and Connecticut - that interrupted Oscar coverage.

"It's something that we'll be looking into," Genachowski said, noting that the rules "may have lost pace with changes in the marketplace."

Meanwhile, a federal appeals court on Friday sided with a lower court in upholding a ruling that requires cable companies to share their programming with rival services. The rule challenge was brought by the cable company, Comcast, as well as Bethpage-based Cablevision Systems Corp., which owns Newsday.

The rules prohibit cable operators from refusing to sell rivals programming in which they have an interest. In 2007, the FCC extended the rules for five years.

In a statement, Cablevision said: "Like the must-carry and retransmission consent regime that allowed ABC to black out the Oscars for 3 million households this week, the program access rules are based on an outdated and obsolete view of the competitive landscape. In today's highly competitive video marketplace these rules do nothing but tilt the playing field in favor of phone companies and broadcasters to the detriment of fair competition and consumers."

But the appeals court said geographic areas are susceptible to "near-monopoly control" by cable companies.

Verizon hailed the ruling.

"This decision protects Long Islanders' ability to view the programs they demand as they gain new choices among video providers, like Verizon FiOS," said spokesman John Bonomo.

Earlier this week, Cablevision and other providers signed onto a petition filed by Time Warner Cable asking the FCC to update rules related to retransmission.

Observers have predicted more contract disputes and channel blackouts unless the rules are changed.

Staff and wire reports

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