FCC Eliminates Sports Blackout Rules
At its open meeting this morning, the FCC unanimously adopted a Report and Order in which it eliminated its sports blackout rules (specifically Sections 76.111, 76.128 and 76.1506(m)), which prohibit cable operators, DBS operators and open video system (OVS) operators from retransmitting, within a protected local blackout zone, the signal of a distant broadcast station carrying a live sporting event that is not available live on a local television broadcast station. A copy of the Commission’s associated news release is available HERE. The decision is not a surprise, as the Commission had specifically proposed to eliminate the rules in its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for this proceeding and Commissioners had publicly stated their support for that proposal. After introductory remarks by Media Bureau Chief William Lake, the item was presented by Kathy Berthot of the Bureau’s Policy Division. The key points of the presentation were as follows:
- The Commission originally adopted the cable sports blackout rule in 1975, with the intent of ensuring availability of sports programming via off-air television in all markets while simultaneously protecting the gate receipts of local sports teams. As a result of marketplace developments, however, the rules effectively are now only relevant to the National Football League, which has experienced substantial growth both in TV and overall revenues with substantially less reliance on gate revenue. The sports blackout rules therefore are obsolete, since original economic justifications for them no longer exist.
- The Commission’s regulation should not support what amount to private business decisions by the NFL to black out games on local television. If the NFL wishes to continue its blackout policies, it must do so without support from the federal government.
- Elimination of the rules is unlikely to prompt the NFL to migrate games from off-air television to pay TV, due to its existing contracts with the broadcast networks (which do not expire until 2022) and the economic costs of losing distribution via local television.
- NFL blackouts of local games are rare in any case. Only two out of 256 games were blacked out last season, and none have been blacked out so far this season.