ATVA Warns of ‘Blackout Blitz’ as MLB Playoffs and NFL Regular Season Near

With the NFL regular season scheduled to kick off on Sept. 6 and Major League Baseball nearing a weeks-long round of playoffs beginning Oct. 2 and leading up to the World Series on Oct. 23, a top lobbying group for the pay TV distribution industry warned fans that they should brace themselves for a flurry of blackouts from local broadcasters.

The American Television Alliance (ATVA), a Washington lobbying group consisting of top distributors including Charter Communications and Dish Network, said consumers should prepare for a blackout blitz in what is threatening to become another record year for retransmission consent disputes.

According to ATVA, there were 213 blackouts in 2017, breaking the previous mark of 193 in 2015. So far this year, there have been 83 blackouts.

ATVA said college and professional football games are the most frequently targeted and blacked out programming category, used by broadcasters as deal leverage to gain higher fees.

Broadcasters have long argued increases are necessary in many cases to ensure the ability to provide high quality programming. Earlier this year, the American Cable Association, which represents small cable operators across the country, predicted that retransmission consent fees would rise 88% by 2020, with its membership bearing most of the burden. The National Association of Broadcasters has pointed to data from S&P Global's Kagan research unit that shows that overall retrans fee increases have been declining in recent years. 

“The irony of ATVA lamenting infrequent loss of broadcast sports programming is especially rich in light of Big Pay TV’s never-ending blackout of Los Angeles Dodger baseball games that’s lasted nearly five years," NAB said in a statement. "Broadcasters have every incentive to keep our programming on pay TV platforms, as evidenced by the fact that 99 percent of all retransmission consent deals end without a disruption in service.”

Some specific examples from last season, according to the ATVA include:

  • Northwest Broadcasting’s blackout of Charter Spectrum customers for more than four months, a period that included the NFL Super Bowl and NHL Stanley Cup, the 2017 MLB Playoffs, including the 2017 World Series Between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Houston Astros; NFL Divisional Round Playoff matchups between the Seattle Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons; Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs; and Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys; The NFL’s Annual Thanksgiving Day Game between the Minnesota Vikings and The Detroit Lions. 
  • Capital Broadcasting’s blackout of hometown fans in Raleigh, NC during a game between the NFL's Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints; pivotal college football matchups including a highly anticipated contest between the University of Georgia and the University of Notre Dame. 

“The TV blackout, or even the threat of one, is becoming one of the ugliest traditions in spectator sports, and it should end. Sports fans in particular are some of the most frequent victims of broadcaster blackouts, and as this crisis grows we’re afraid this year could be the worst we’ve ever seen,” said ATVA spokesman Trent Duffy in a statement.