The FCC’s plan for TV blackouts: what it means for sports fans

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took a major step this week to end a TV blackout rule that can prevent local fans from seeing games of their home teams. Cable and satellite companies hailed the move as a victory for fans, but the NFL and local broadcasters say it will lead to fewer free games on TV.

But what exactly would the FCC rule do? The short answer is it could affect football fans in a few cities but won’t get rid of blackouts altogether. Here’s a plain English explanation of what’s going on.

The end of (some) NFL blackouts

Right now, sports leagues can force TV broadcasters to black out their signal within certain zones around a stadium if, in the case of the NFL, the home team doesn’t sell out 72 hours before game-time. Cable and satellite companies can skirt the rule by piping in a distant feed — for instance, by taking a Fox signal in the San Francisco Bay area and showing it to blacked-out fans in San Diego who want to watch a 49ers-Chargers game..

But a forty-year old FCC rule says the cable companies can’t do that. Instead, pay TV providers like Dish and Time Warner Cable have to mirror the broadcasting restrictions imposed on local over-the-air broadcasters. (The rule, which sometimes results in broadcasters buying up unsold tickets to avoid a blackout, also applies to DirecTV’s “Sunday Ticket” package.)

These restrictions are set to change after the FCC unanimously proposed this week to remove the rule. The change, which is still subject to a comment period and final approval, would mean cable and satellite channels could show a game even if Fox (or CBS OR ABC or NBC) has blocked out the local over-the-air signal.

So which fans will be most affected?

The only people this will affect in the short term are NFL fans in a handful of small market cities — Buffalo, Cincinnati, San Diego and Tampa — where owners fail to sell enough tickets to home games, and trigger the blackouts.

The NFL is trying to play down the issue by pointing out the blackouts are relatively rare compared to ten or twenty years ago. In 2011, for instance, teams blacked out 16 local games. This year, the second blackout of the season will take place in Buffalo on Sunday, while the Chargers barely avoided one through some creative ticket counting.

So, if you’re a hometown NFL fan who likes the 49ers or the New York Giants, you have nothing to worry about — in terms of blackouts that is (if you’re a Giants fan, there’s plenty else to worry about).

What about baseball and basketball and hockey games?

While the proposed FCC rule change applies to MLB, the NBA and the NHL, it won’t really have an effect due to the way those leagues sell their TV rights.

Unlike the NFL, where the league negotiates TV rights, it is individual teams that control most of the rights in the other sports leagues. So, for sports like professional hockey, a team will sign a contract with a local TV distributor that is not subject to an NHL-imposed blackout.

There will, however, still be blackouts (more on that below) in these sports, but not ones caused by the FCC rule.

So why do the broadcasters and the NFL say ending blackouts will be bad for fans?

The league and broadcasters says a change in the FCC rule will lead more games to “migrate” to pay TV channels like ESPN, which will result in less football on free over-the-air stations like CBS or NBC. (This will make it harder for lower income fans (or cord cutters) to watch football on TV. On the face of it, this seems like a strange argument since Monday and Thursday night football are shown on cable channels already — but are also shown over-the-air in markets where the teams are playing.

The broadcasters, meanwhile, are worried that a change in the rule will provide an extra bargaining chip to cable and satellite channels when the two sides negotiate retransmission rates (the fees that Dish and the others pay to include stations like CBS in their TV packages).

So will the rule change actually happen?

It probably will, in part because of the unanimous preliminary FCC vote. Politicians like Senators Sherrod Brown (D-Oh) and John McCain (R-Az) are also proposing laws to end blackouts, saying it’s an outrage that teams receive public money to build stadiums and then prevent tax payers from seeing the games on TV. (Brown’s constituents in Ohio, however, might wish for more blackouts given the state of the Browns…).

So this could be it for sports blackouts?

Alas, no. The NFL will still be able to black out the over-the-air games like they do already. And fans will not be protected from other minor blackouts that occur when an individual cable or satellite companies can’t come to terms with channels controlled by teams.

This happened in 2012 when MSG Networks, which controls rights to the Rangers, Knicks, Devils and Sabres, pulled their channel from Time Warner Cable for weeks. Those subscribers could still watch the games at a sports bar or on DirecTV but, in their living rooms at least, the games were blacked out. This could happen anywhere around the country whenever there is a similar price dispute.

What about online blackouts?

The debate over the FCC cable blackout comes at a time when online packages like NHL Game Center or MLB At Bat are soaring in popularity (MLB earns more money than any other Apple app) – but are subject to heavy blackout rules. The FCC plan won’t effect this a bit.

The online issues will likely come up in the future — especially as the NFL and others begin selling the rights to online TV in smaller and smaller slices.

I can’t get enough of these details. Where can I learn more?

The LA Times has a good rundown of the intricacies of the current FCC rule, and Think Progress explains the rule and the larger context. You can also dive into the FCC’s announcement, which has a full background section, here.