A policy that has long drawn the ire of sports fans around the country took a hit from the blind side last week, as the Federal Communications Commission recommended ending its decades-old rule blacking out broadcasts of certain athletic contests.
But the narrow recommendation, if adopted, would do little to end most blackouts in practice, which are generally privately negotiated and result from contracts brokered between sports leagues and television networks that trigger a blackout in a local market when a sports team fails to sell out a game. The rule applies to several major American sports, most notably football.
Acting Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn, in one of her last moves as FCC chief, issued a policy proposal Friday seeking to eliminate the commission's 40-year-old rules governing sports blackouts.
"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.
"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," she said. "Nevertheless, if the record in this proceeding shows that the rules are no longer justified, the commission's involvement in this area should end."
Consumer-advocate groups and sports fans alike championed the recommendation, quelling a loud chorus of agitated blackout opposition almost as old as the rule itself. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., earlier this year introduced the Television Consumer Freedom Act, which, among other broadcast reforms, would have required any sports venue paid for in part with taxpayer money to repeal its blackout restrictions.
But while the proposal is receiving a warm reception, it will do little to end most blackouts.
The FCC, which says it is "rarely involved in the sports blackouts you may have experienced," has applied its narrow rule since 1975 to block cable and satellite networks from airing games in markets where local broadcast stations have already blacked out a game. Those local broadcast blackouts will still exist, though customers could potentially now turn to cable and satellite offerings.
Local stations, however, contend that removing the FCC rule will undermine their contracts with the leagues and price many fans out of the chance to watch their favorite teams on TV. The 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 as their primary source for sports," the National Association of Broadcasters said in a statement.
Advocacy groups, though, say that the trend toward paid viewing is already happening, with or without the FCC rule.
"We've seen more and more the NFL and other sports leagues moving to cable networks where you have to pay to watch them. There's already competition going on here for those contracts," said Chris Lewis, vice president of government affairs at Public Knowledge. "There's no reason for the FCC to reinforce the blackout agreements."
The NFL declined to comment directly on the policy proposal.
"We will review the proposal, but it is worth noting that there have been no local TV blackouts of home games through the first 133 games of the 2013 season," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said. Fifteen NFL games were blacked out in 2012.
Tom Wheeler was sworn in Monday as the new FCC chairman and promised to "hit the ground running," while announcing a dozen senior staff appointments.