Even as the “blackout” rule has been repealed, the league is trying to squeeze money from fans, broadcasters and sponsors.
The commission, in a unanimous vote, agrees to drop the 40-year-old requirement that TV stations black out games when a team fails to fill the local stadium. Key communications attorneys say that the vote could be seen as yet another step in an agency effort to undermine broadcast programming exclusivity — a linchpin of the broadcast industry’s retransmission consent rights.
The FCC is poised to dump the sports blackout rule today, dealing a blow to the NFL at a time of growing scrutiny for the league in Washington. The commission is expected to eliminate the decades-old regulation that prevents cable and satellite TV from airing games that are blacked out locally when the team fails to sell enough tickets to fill its stadium. The league’s looming defeat on blackouts comes at a time when it’s taking heat in Washington on everything from how it handles domestic violence to the impact of concussions on its players to the name of the Washington Redskins team.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler: “In 1975, the commission enacted rules barring cable from airing a game that has been blacked out on the local television station because it was not sold out — strengthening the NFL’s blackout policy. Today, the rules make no sense at all. That’s why today, I am sending to my fellow commissioners a proposal to get rid of the FCC’s blackout rule once and for all. It fulfills a commitment I made in June. We will vote on the proposal at the commission’s open meeting on Sept. 30.”
As the NFL’s new season kicked off Thursday with a marquee matchup of Super Bowl champion Seattle and Green Bay, the clock appears to be winding down on the unpopular sports blackout rule that has left some football fans in the dark.
During a speech in Buffalo, N.Y., FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai called on the agency to hold a vote to remove the sports blackout rules, which keep cable and satellite companies from airing games if those games are blacked out on local broadcast stations. “I hope my fellow FCC commissioners will join me in voting to eliminate” the sports blackout rule, he said.
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Just in time for kickoff, the National Football League is pushing federal regulators to keep a rule on the books that forces cable and satellite companies to black out some games. In the weeks ahead of yesterday’s preseason opener, the league has rushed the FCC with meetings and letters, even bringing out former Steelers star Lynn Swann to aid the public relations push.
The U.S. Supreme Court is set to decide as early as tomorrow whether Aereo Inc. can use coin-sized antennas to capture TV signals and sell them over the Internet — without paying broadcasters. That’s not the only thing worrying broadcasters. The FCC has proposed eliminating a 39-year-old rule that bars pay-TV companies such as Comcast and Dish Network from showing NFL games that get blacked out on TV stations whenever the stadiums aren’t sold out.
The FCC’s sports blackout rule is, in essence, one of three FCC bulwarks that help preserve broadcasters’ local exclusivity to their programming. Any loss in stations’ exclusivity leads to a loss of advertising income, and more important, a loss of muscle in their retransmission consent negotiations with cable and satellite. Local exclusivity, like the sports blackout rule, is fundamental to both of broadcasters’ revenue streams.
The FCC voted unanimously on Wednesday to consider a proposal that would end its sports blackout rule. The rule, first adopted in 1975, prohibits cable and satellite providers from carrying a sports event if the game is blacked out on the local television stations.
The battle hasn’t ended over sports blackouts — where fans have their television access blocked if the local team doesn’t sell out. Lawmakers and regulators are pushing back on behalf of consumers, and fans hate the rule. “The plain and simple fact is that blackouts prevent fans from watching the games they deserve to watch,” SAYS Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).
Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) are co-sponsoring a bill to decrease the frequency of local blackouts. Introduced Tuesday, the Furthering Access and Networks for Sports (FANS) Act of 2013 would eliminate the FCC’s sports blackout rule, but would also take away the NFL or other major league’s antitrust exemptions to collectively negotiate rights deals if they include blackout provisions in carriage deals.
In what may have been her last move as Acting FCC chairwoman, Mignon Clyburn on Friday proposed to end the sports blackout rule, which would clear the way for NFL teams to blackout local broadcasts of their NFL games when they fail to sell out their stadiums.Tom Wheeler is expected to take over the chairmanship on Monday.
The National Association of Broadcasters on Monday came out in favor of rules that allow blackouts of NFL and other leagues’ games. Meanwhile, a group of five Democratic senators called for blackout rules to go in a filing, saying they are “a relic of a different time.”
The FCC took a step that could impact the NFL and other leagues’ policies of blacking out games in local markets -– at least on paper. The commission is asking for public comment on whether it should eliminate a rule requiring cable and satellite operators to honor the blackouts that local stations abide by.