NFL Says Sports Blackout Protects Broadcasters, Fan Experience


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The NFL says that lifting the FCC's sports blackout rule sits alongside the syndicated exclusivity and network nonduplication rules as key protections for contractual distribution rights for broadcasters.

That came in comments opposing the Sports Fans Coalition petition to drop the rule, which prevents cable and satellite companies from importing an NFL game if its broadcast in the local market has been blacked out due to the lack of a sell-out.

The league pointed out that it was the only sports league where all of a team's local games were available with the exception of what it said was the relatively rare blackout -- 16 games out of 256 regular season games.

The league summarized its points succinctly. It said that the blackout rule is in the public interest because it supports broadcast TV in general and the broad distribution of games -- what the FCC has called must-have programming -- via free over-the-air TV; that the same result could not be practically achieved through private contract; that Congress in the sports Broadcasting Act said promoting attendance at the game helps the sport and fans, and that repeal of the FCC's blackout rule would not end blackouts.

The last point is arguably a key to the NFL's argument. The league says blackouts are key to promoting fan attendance, which in turn is key to the fan experience both in the stadium and on TV. Feeling that way, the NFL suggested it was not dropping its contractual blackout policy. If the FCC dropped its policy, cable and satellite operators would be able to air the games, but not broadcasters.

"The sports blackout rule does not require a local television station to blackout games, nor would its repeal authorize a station to carry a game that has been blacked out by the rights-holder," said the league. "Rather, the rule prevents cable and satellite providers from carrying a game locally when the over-the-air broadcast has been blacked out. In the absence of the rule, the local television station still would be required to black out the game if required to do so by the rights-holder, and viewers that rely on free, over-the-air broadcast television still would not be able to view the game."

With no congressional direction to change policy related to the importance of local broadcast stations and the need to protect them from imported distance signals, it says there is no reason to change a policy that has been supported by Congress and the FCC at times when there were more blackouts than at the present day.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.