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Have you ever turned on the TV to watch your beloved (fill-in-the-blank) professional football team, only to discover your local cable network is not broadcasting the home game? Unfortunately, this is not an error on the part of your cable provider. Rather, this is the effect of a contractual agreement between sports leagues and broadcast rights holders that “prohibit them from showing a sporting event if the game is not sold out.” In the event that the sports league did not sell out the home game, then that game could not be broadcast live on local TV — it was effectively blacked out.
These privately negotiated agreements, however, are separate and distinct from the FCC’s Sports Blackout Rule. The FCC’s blackout rule prohibits cable and satellite operators from circumventing the exclusive negotiated rights of a local broadcast station by transmitting signals of the game that should be blacked out.
In light of growing criticism of blackouts, the FCC announced on Friday, November 1, its plans to review its blackout rule and determine whether the rule remains justified. FCC acting chairwoman Mignon Clyburn stated that they are reviewing a proposal to eliminate the 40-year-old blackout rule because “[c]hanges 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.” Moreover, questions have arisen as to whether blackouts actually contribute to leagues’ efforts to sell out games.
Most blackouts sports fans experience, however, are a result of the privately negotiated exclusive broadcasting agreements, not the FCC’s Sports Blackout Rules. Arguably, the steady decrease of the NFL’s use of blackouts indicates that privately negotiated agreements are becoming less common. According to NFL spokesman Greg Aiello, the league is committed to relaxing blackouts, “noting that there have been no local TV blackouts of NFL home games through the first 133 games of the 2013 season.”
Despite the NFL’s relaxation of blackouts, the league and broadcasters strongly oppose repealing the Sports Blackout Rule. Unsurprisingly, cable and satellite operators advocate its repeal. Even if the FCC eliminates the Sports Blackout Rule, the agency has no authority to regulate the privately negotiated blackout clauses. So the question remains as to how the FCC’s decision will affect the future broadcasts of local sporting events.
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