Sports Blackouts Could Be Gone by Next Year’s First Kickoff

The FCC might change its broadcasting rules to keep games on the air — even when they’re sparsely attended.

These fans endured a whiteout, but their counterparts at home may not have to deal with blackouts much longer.
National Journal
Alex Brown
Add to Briefcase
Alex Brown
Dec. 18, 2013, 11:22 a.m.

Take heart, Char­gers fans (wherever you are). By next year, the NFL may no longer be able to pre­vent you from watch­ing your team’s games — even if Qual­comm Sta­di­um is full of empty seats.

The Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion an­nounced Wed­nes­day it is pro­pos­ing to roll back rules that keep pay TV pro­viders from show­ing games that are blacked out on loc­al sta­tions. Cur­rently, the NFL keeps games off of loc­al air­waves if less than 85 per­cent of tick­ets are sold. It’s helped out by the FCC, which pre­vents cable and satel­lite pro­viders from bring­ing blacked-out view­ers their game if the loc­al net­work is barred from show­ing it.

But that could be about to change. The ra­tionale be­hind the rule — teams’ re­li­ance on tick­et sales as a rev­en­ue source — is out­dated, FCC says. A 1975 find­ing from the agency pos­ited that an im­por­ted sig­nal of a loc­al game could cause gate re­ceipts to plum­met. Black­out-free broad­casts, the think­ing went, would cause teams to stop selling air­ing rights to their games, for­cing fans to at­tend in per­son. But in­creas­ing rev­en­ues from broad­cast rights — The Los Angeles Dodgers just earned $7 bil­lion for a deal with Time Warner Cable — make such a scen­ario un­likely.

“Changes in the mar­ket­place 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,” said an FCC of­fi­cial. The agency’s re­port singled out the NFL — the source of most blacked-out games — and noted its climb­ing broad­cast profits. “[T]he im­port­ance of gate re­ceipts has di­min­ished dra­mat­ic­ally for NFL clubs in the past four dec­ades, par­tic­u­larly in re­la­tion to tele­vi­sion rev­en­ues,” it stated.

Sev­er­al groups quickly voiced sup­port. “Elim­in­at­ing these rules is a small, but im­port­ant step,” said Pub­lic Know­ledge at­tor­ney John Bergmay­er. “[T]he FCC should not be in the busi­ness of put­ting its thumb on the scales in a way that harms view­ers.”

But al­low­ing cable sub­scribers a black­out work-around not offered to over-the-air view­ers isn’t fair, says one broad­casters’ group. “We’re con­cerned that the FCC pro­pos­al may hasten the mi­gra­tion of sports to pay-TV plat­forms,” said the Na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Broad­casters’ Den­nis Whar­ton. “Al­low­ing im­port­a­tion of sports pro­gram­ming on pay-TV plat­forms while deny­ing that same pro­gram­ming to free broad­cast-only homes would erode the eco­nom­ic base of loc­al tele­vi­sion.”

The pro­posed change will first go through a 30-day pub­lic com­ment peri­od, fol­lowed by an­oth­er 60-day peri­od for replies. After a re­view, the pro­pos­al would then have to earn the sup­port of a ma­jor­ity of com­mis­sion­ers be­fore tak­ing ef­fect.

Sens. John Mc­Cain, R-Ar­iz., and Richard Blu­menth­al, D-Ct., pro­posed le­gis­la­tion in Novem­ber to lim­it black­outs. Mc­Cain took to Twit­ter to praise FCC’s pro­pos­al.

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