FCC Acting Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn has introduced a proposal to end the agency’s nearly 40-year-old sports blackout rule, saying that changes in the marketplace have “raised questions” about whether they are still in the public interest.
Clyburn said that she circulated her proposal to other commissioners about eliminating the rules. Those rules vary widely according to the various professional sports leagues.
For the NFL, the blackout rule prevents local TV station owners from carrying home games for NFL teams unless all tickets to the game were sold out, under the rationale that the prospect of being able to watch the game on TV would dampen ticket sales. For Major League Baseball and the NHL, the focus is on protecting local stations with home-team rights, resulting in market-specific blackouts at times for national outlets such as ESPN and Fox. If a broadcast game is blacked out, cable and satellite companies are prevented from airing the game.
“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. Elimination of our sports blackout rules will not prevent sports leagues, broadcasters and cable and satellite providers from privately negotiating agreements to black out certain sports events.”
In fact, the FCC says that in the majority of the cases, blackouts are a result of such agreements, so that they would not necessarily end even if the rule were eliminated.
“If the record in this proceeding shows that the rules are no longer justified, the commission’s involvement in this area should end,” Clyburn said.
The blackout rules have been a bane to hometown fans of sporting events, some of whom would trek to other market areas just to gain reception to key games.
“Sports blackouts are exceedingly rare, and NAB dislikes these disruptions as much as our viewers,” NAB Executive Vice President of Communications Dennis Wharton said in a statement. “However, we’re concerned that today’s 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. Allowing importation of sports programming on pay-TV platforms while denying that same programming to broadcast-only homes would erode the economic underpinning that sustains local broadcasting and our service to community.”
The proposal to eliminate the rule has been around for some time. The FCC took public comment on the proposal in 2012, and broadcasters argued then that the result would be more viewers stuck with having to find their teams on pay platforms. The rules, they say, prevent satellite and cable providers from using compulsory licenses to “circumvent” sports leagues’ contracts for broadcast rights to their games. Compulsory licenses allow cable and satellite services to retransmit broadcasts without consent of the program owners. “Broadcasters understand and sympathize with fan frustration over sports blackouts,” the NAB said in comments to the FCC. “Ideally, no blackouts would ever occur. But elimination of the FCC’s rules would not solve the problem, as Congress has codified sports leagues’ rights to blackout home games.”
Some cable and satellite providers are pushing for such a change, The Sports Fans Coalition, a D.C. based advocacy group, also is pushing for the rule’s elimination, contending that there is a “false premise that blackouts significantly affect attendance and revenues.” Blackouts won’t end if the rule is eliminated, and they note that satellite providers would still be prohibited from importing games from distant markets, the coalition said in a filing to the FCC. What elimination of the black out will do, they say, is force the NFL to negotiate for such a clause in a “free market.”
The NFL contends that the Coalition is aligned with cable and satellite companies in pushing for the elimination of the rule. The rule “supports the public interest in maintaining free, broadcast television as a viable means of receiving popular sports programming such as NFL football,” the league said in a filing with the FCC last year. The commissioner of Major League Baseball also opposes the elimination of the rule.
Clyburn is in her final days as acting chairwoman, as Tom Wheeler is expected to be sworn in on Monday as the new chairman of the FCC. Clyburn will continue to serve as a commissioner.