Over NFL Protests, FCC Unanimously Eliminates TV Blackout Rule

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8:03 AM PST 09/30/2014 by Alex Ben Block, The Hollywood Reporter

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This ends FCC sanctioned authority for pro football to blackout football games if the local venue is not sold out

The Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday punted the 39-year-old sports blackout rule to the sidelines of broadcast history by a unanimous five to zero vote.

The action was taken despite stiff opposition from the National Football League, which has argued that the rule has served the interest of the teams and the fans and should not be changed.

The NFL has also warned that if the blackout rule is ended, it could mean even more games will move from free broadcast TV to pay TV; but opponents of the rule point out pro football games on broadcast remain highly rated and the licensing rights are extremely lucrative for the league and its 32 teams.

Daniel Durbin, director of the Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media & Society, says the NFL fears that if there are empty seats in a stadium during a game it will harm the image of the sport: “It’s sold as a huge event and its packaged that way…If you’re trying to create this sense this is a monumental event, its going to diminish the feel of the event to have all those empty seats in the stadium.”

The action to eliminate the rule was led by FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, who was carrying on an effort begun in 2012 by then acting FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn.

“Today we are blowing the whistle on an anti-fan practice,” Wheeler wrote in an editorial in USA Today on Sept. 9. “The NFL should no longer be able to hide behind government rules that punish loyal fans.”

Wheeler and other critics have made the case that when the rules were put in place in 1975 by the FCC, teams got most of their revenue from selling tickets and other in-stadium sales. Today, the largest source of revenue is televising the games.

“The bottom line,” wrote Wheeler, “is the NFL no longer needs the governments help to remain viable. And we at the FCC shouldn’t be complicit in preventing sports fans from watching their favorite teams on TV. It’s time to sack the sports blackout rules for good.”

While the FCC vote ends government mandated authority some in Congress feel that is not enough to ensure the blackout rules are not enforced arbitrarily by the league. Prior to the FCC vote on Tuesday, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn) and U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins (D-Buffalo, N.Y.) held a press conference.

Blumenthal, who has been working with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz), wants to next eliminate the NFL’s anti-trust exemption which he says is “no longer justified,” because teams can fill stadiums simply by “lowering the prices” for tickets.

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