FCC Tackles Blackouts of Sporting Events

A view of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome through a fish-eye lense as play was suspended for 34 minutes in the third quarter due to a power outage during Super Bowl XLVII between the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers at on February 3, 2013 in New Orleans. 
National Journal
Dustin Volz
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Dustin Volz
Nov. 4, 2013, 4:01 p.m.

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.

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