An FCC Republican Wants to Stop NFL TV Blackouts

“Our job is to serve the public interest, not the private interests of team owners.”

NFL fans could miss the action if their teams fail to sell out playoff games.
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
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Brendan Sasso
Aug. 12, 2014, 9:21 a.m.

A Re­pub­lic­an mem­ber of the Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion wants to re­peal an agency rule that pre­vents some sports fans from watch­ing their fa­vor­ite teams on TV.

“I don’t be­lieve the gov­ern­ment should in­ter­vene in the mar­ket­place and help sports leagues en­force their black­out policies,” FCC Com­mis­sion­er Ajit Pai said Tues­day. “Our job is to serve the pub­lic in­terest, not the private in­terests of team own­ers.”

The state­ment is the latest boost to the move­ment to end the FCC’s sports black­out rule. The com­mis­sion voted in Decem­ber to seek pub­lic com­ment on re­peal­ing the rule, and FCC Chair­man Tom Wheel­er has said he ex­pects to make a fi­nal de­cision this fall. Pai is one of two Re­pub­lic­ans on the five mem­ber com­mis­sion. 

The rule, first ad­op­ted in 1975, pro­hib­its cable and satel­lite TV pro­viders from show­ing a sports event in an area if the game is blacked out on loc­al broad­cast tele­vi­sion sta­tions.

Drop­ping the rule would have the biggest im­pact on the NFL, which re­quires broad­casters to black out games if the loc­al team does not sell out the sta­di­um. The agree­ments are in­ten­ded to en­cour­age fans to buy tick­ets to see the games live.

The NFL has been lob­by­ing the FCC to save the rule. The league’s le­gis­lat­ive dir­ect­or, Ken Ed­monds, met with an FCC aide last week to dis­cuss the is­sue, ac­cord­ing to a reg­u­lat­ory fil­ing.

The NFL ar­gues that the rule is ne­ces­sary to keep games on loc­al broad­cast chan­nels, which are free to ac­cess over the air. The league also says the rule boosts loc­al eco­nom­ies by en­sur­ing that more fans at­tend the game in per­son.

In Tues­day’s speech, Com­mis­sion­er Pai ac­know­ledged that re­peal­ing the rule won’t end all black­outs. The NFL could still force loc­al sta­tions to black­out games that don’t sell out.

But he ar­gued that the rule hurts con­sumers and serves no pur­pose any­more.

“The FCC shouldn’t get in­volved in hand­ing out spe­cial fa­vors or pick­ing win­ners and losers,” he said. “And, in my view, there is no reas­on for the FCC to be in­volved in the sports black­out busi­ness.”

Pai made the speech at an event in Buf­falo, N.Y., with Rep. Bri­an Hig­gins, a Demo­crat who has been ur­ging the FCC to re­peal its black­out rule for years. Sens. Richard Blu­menth­al and John Mc­Cain have also been work­ing to over­turn the rule.

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