December 19, 2013
Football fans could find fewer television blackouts under a proposal advanced by federal regulators on Wednesday.
The National Football League's blackout rule blocks the local broadcast of games if fewer than 85% of seats are sold 72 hours before kickoff to encourage more people to attend because they can't watch the game at home. Blackouts were once common but there has been only one in the NFL this year. Since 1975, the Federal Communications Commission has cemented the league's policy in place by requiring cable and satellite TV providers to observe any blackout imposed on local broadcasters. That ensures no one in the team's home area can watch, regardless of how people get their TV service.
On Wednesday, the FCC's five commissioners voted unanimously to issue a proposal that would undo the ban. The NFL and other sports leagues could still try to impose blackouts on cable and satellite TV providers through private negotiations, but they wouldn't get any federal help in doing so. "There is evidence that after nearly 40 years, the Sports Blackout Rule has outlived its relevance and utility," said FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who circulated the proposal when she was acting chairman. She questioned whether the rule was still in the public interest "when high ticket prices and the economy make it difficult for many sports fans to attend games."
An NFL spokesman said the league will strongly oppose any change to the blackout rule, citing a historical low in the number of blackouts since the policy was implemented in the 1970s. "The blackout rule is very important in supporting NFL stadiums and the ability of NFL clubs to sell tickets and keeping our games attractive as television programming with large crowds," said spokesman Brian McCarthy. The NFL blacked out 15 games last year and one San Diego home game this year so far. In some cases, teams have bought up remaining tickets at a discount to prevent blackouts. In the 1970s, as many as one-half of all NFL games were blacked out in their local TV markets, ostensibly to encourage local fans to purchase tickets. The FCC proposal now goes out for public comment. A final vote would be needed to pass. FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai welcomed the proposal, saying if adopted, fans in Cincinnati, Buffalo, San Diego and Tampa Bay could benefit.
Fans have argued the rule is unfair. "These needless policies restrict what viewers can watch, and what programming cable systems can carry, in the name of protecting local broadcasters from competition and boosting ticket sales to sporting events," said John Bergmayer of Public Knowledge. Broadcasters were less enthusiastic about the proposal, warning that an end to the blackout rule could encourage sports leagues to migrate from free stations to cable channels. "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 and hinder broadcasting as an engine for economic growth in local communities," National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton said.
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