Don’t get your hopes up yet. Well, maybe a little. FCC Acting Chairperson Mignon L. Clyburn wants the agency to consider eliminating its sports blackout rules. This isn’t your typical Friday afternoon, sweep-it-under-the-rug type of press release.
ACTING FCC CHAIRWOMAN CLYBURN STATEMENT ON TAKING ACTION TO ADDRESS THE AGENCY’S SPORTS BLACKOUT RULES
“Today, I circulated a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking proposing to eliminate the Commission’s nearly 40-year old sports blackout rules.
“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 the sports leagues, broadcasters, and cable and satellite providers from privately negotiating agreements to black out certain sports events.
“Nevertheless, if the record in this proceeding shows that the rules are no longer justified, the Commission’s involvement in this area should end.”
The language in the release emphasizes that many sports leagues enter into their own blackout agreements that are often the cause of blackouts. However, it’s the NFL that most often comes under fire when local games incur blackouts, and it’s the FCC’s rules that govern those instances. MLB gets protection thanks to its antitrust exemption, which has resulted in the teams creating the Byzantine TV territories and rules that we all know and love. Both the NFL and MLB are facing a class action lawsuit over blackouts.
Mostly, it’s the leagues’ various exclusivity agreements with the national networks that have dictated blackouts. Asked to respond, the NFL stated that a change would “undermine the retransmission-consent regime and give cable and satellite operators excessive leverage in retransmission-consent negotiations.”
The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), also discourages eliminating the rules:
“…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.”
Moreover, Clyburn made this move on her way out the door, as her tenure as acting chair ends Monday. It’ll be up to the next chair and Congressional muscle to push this through, which will be tough given the networks’ and leagues’ gargantuan lobbying efforts. Still, it’s a step forward for fan and viewer-oriented groups looking to fight back against the unwieldy beast that is TV.
The FCC last visited the rules in 2000. Naturally, nothing came of the inquiry, which helped get the ball rolling on TV mega-deals.
Well, shucks. Clyburn’s tenure as acting chairwoman is over, as the Senate finally got around to confirming the real chairman, Tom Wheeler, a couple of days ago. Wheeler had been in limbo thanks to another Ted Cruz antic (denying unanimous consent for a floor vote) that ended when somebody told him he didn’t have any friends left in the body. When Wheeler comes into office, this NPRM will still be live, but nothing significant happens at the FCC that the chairman doesn’t agree to.
It wouldn’t hurt my feelings if the FCC was to eliminate its blackout rules altogether, but until we know what Chairman Wheeler thinks about this deal we don’t have much of a story. Chances are some amendments are in order, but the FCC rarely limits its own jurisdiction on anything.