FCC Seeks Comment on NFL Blackout Rule

League regs forced local TV stations to black out 16 games

Sports blackouts are a sure way to make fans cry foul. It’s one of the reasons the Federal Communications Commission wants to shine a light on National Football League local TV game blackouts.

This year, NFL rules forced local TV stations to black out a total of 16 games in Cincinnati; Tampa, Fla.; Buffalo, N.Y.; and San Diego, all because those cities’ teams failed to fill the seats in their stadiums. The number would have been higher if the CBS station in Miami and its corporate sponsor Anheuser-Busch hadn’t bought tickets for four Dolphins home games.

When a local station can’t air a game, an FCC rule kicks in that prohibits pay-TV providers from airing it as well. The agency is asking for comments next month about whether it should eliminate its own blackout rule.

To a fan, that sounds like a great idea. But even if the rule were lifted, there would be no guarantee that the game would air in the local market. Pay-TV providers would still have to deal with the NFL, which dictates who can air the programs and when.

The Sports Fan Coalition, which petitioned the FCC for the change, believes lifting the rule will make a difference. “We’re hoping if cable and satellite companies can carry the games, then local broadcasters will tell the NFL enough is enough,” said Brian Frederick, executive director of the Sports Fan Coalition. “It’s a totally unnecessary regulation that just props up blackouts.”

Broadcasters, however, see the move to eliminate the FCC rule as another attack on local TV. They call the whole thing a “charade,” pointing to the coalition’s connection and support from pay-TV providers, such as Time Warner Cable and Verizon. David Goodfriend, the organization’s founder, is Dish’s former chief lobbyist.

Also at play is the fact that broadcasters have already lost most of their sports programming to pay TV. “If you want to hasten the migration of marquee sports to pay TV, this is the petition for you,” said Dennis Wharton, evp of the National Association of Broadcasters. “At least the NFL is the one sports league that keeps marquee games on over-the-air TV.”

While broadcasters, the NFL and pay TV fight it out, Sports Fan Coalition is playing to the fans. Last week, it launched a petition on endblackouts.com. It will also roll out a TV ad campaign on Super Bowl weekend in the blackout markets, with a focus on Buffalo, where it takes a quarter of its population (73,000) to fill the stadium, compared to Chicago’s Soldier Field stadium with a capacity of 61,500.

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