The FCC voted this week to advance a proposal that would eliminate sports' hated television blackout rules. If finalized, the proposal would allow cable and satellite television channels to show local games, even if they're "blacked out" on local broadcast stations because of low attendance.
The 40-year-old rules were originally intended to protect sports leagues from lost ticket revenue, then the main source of income for professional teams. That was also before things like cable television, regional sports networks, and DirecTV even existed.
The FCC will consider whether those rules are outdated thanks to changes in the marketplace, and whether it now makes sense to lift the restrictions. Key to the FCC's decision will be the question of public interest. Originally, as the commission explains in a notice of its consideration of the change, the rules were intended to preserve maximum availability of access to games to the public, by discouraging sports leagues from refusing to sell rights to stations outside of their local markets. The blackout rules, the proposal posits, may no longer effectively ensure that availability. The FCC will seek comment from consumers, sports leagues, and broadcasters on the proposed changes.
In general, sports leagues, including the NFL, are against the proposed changes, as are local broadcasters. As The Los Angeles Times explained in November, any rule change from the FCC wouldn't invalidate existing contracts between leagues and local broadcasters. Most of those contracts include a blackout clause. The change, basically, would be the ability of cable and satellite channels to show a game in markets under a blackout, but that doesn't mean the leagues can't enforce them through sheer will. The NFL blacked out 15 games last year thanks to undersold stadiums, and sixteen in 2011, but just two games have been blacked out this current season.
Unsurprisingly, satellite and cable channels would really, really, like to see the rules go away. The Sports Fans Coalition, a non-profit advocacy group that accepts funding from cable and satellite companies like Time Warner, has also spoken out in favor of eliminating the rule. In order to to that, the rule change needs to pass one more FCC vote, following the public comment period.