FCC Proposes Eliminating Sports Blackout Rules

Before you get too excited, this might not end baseball's TV blackouts. But it's a start.

The Federal Communications Commission has issued a document which, if the Commission adopts its recommendations, would eliminate the FCC's television blackout rules for sports events. If you're interested in plowing through the whole thing, it's all right here. Here's the section relevant to the baseball blackouts we've discussed many times at BCB:

94 Most of the consumer complaints in the record regarding blackouts of MLB games involve blackouts that result from MLB’s use of expansive home territories and MLB’s blackout policy, rather than the Commission’s sports blackout rules. See supra n.91 for description of MLB’s home territories. Under MLB’s blackout policy, fans can generally only watch their "home" team (either home or away games) on the local station or RSN that has exclusive distribution rights in their assigned "home territory." For example, the State of Iowa, which does not have its own major league team, is assigned to the "home territories" of six MLB teams: the Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Kansas City Royals, Milwaukee Brewers, Minnesota Twins, and St. Louis Cardinals. Some or all of the games of these "home" teams may not be available to residents in certain areas of Iowa, however, because the residents’ cable system or satellite carrier does not carry the local television station or RSN with exclusive distribution rights to the team’s games. Even if these residents purchase a premium package such as MLB’s Extra Innings (MLB’s premium cable network channel) or MLB.tv (MLB’s premium internet streaming service), the games of their "home" team will be blacked out on the premium service under the terms of MLB’s agreement with the premium service. See Senator Blumenthal et al. Comments at 2; see also SHVERA Section 208 Report to Congress at ¶ 56; MLB Blackouts FAQ at http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/help/faq_blackout.jsp.

95 The Baseball Commissioner asserts that in order to obtain the protection afforded by the Commission’s sports blackout rules, it "incur[s] the significant cost of identifying all of the potentially affected cable systems and games for each U.S. club and sending notices in the form and within the time frame required" by the Commission’s rules. See Baseball Commissioner Comments at 5. Thus, it appears that detailed information on the number of MLB regular season games blacked out pursuant to the Commission’s rules is readily available. Particularly in view of the Baseball Commissioner’s strong opposition to elimination of the Commission’s sports blackout rules, it would be useful to have more specific data on the number of MLB games blacked out under these rules.

Most of what the FCC's rule change applies to are blackouts of NFL games, which are an entirely different animal. NFL games can be televised in home markets if the team sells out 85 percent of its tickets, according to this Politico article.

And here's the reason any FCC rule change might not change a thing in baseball, from the Tribune, via Reuters:

Professional sports leagues such as the National Football League, broadcasters and cable and satellite service providers could still privately negotiate blackout agreements.

It is often such private agreements, and not the commission's rules, that prompt home game blackouts, the FCC has said.

The reality is, if such agreements were signed between MLB or its teams and cable and satellite providers, the Iowa situation (and others) might still be reality. In an era where people are much more mobile and are often cutting the cable cord and viewing TV on mobile devices or tablets, it makes no sense for cable operators in Iowa, say, to carry CSN Chicago so that Cubs fans there can watch Cubs games. It's just not going to happen.

But there's no reason why MLB and its teams couldn't eliminate blackouts, if this FCC rule is passed, and sell games a la carte. They'd also likely get many more people to subscribe to MLB.TV or MLB Extra Innings if games were available anywhere and everywhere. It would be nice, for example, to be able to check the TV broadcast of a Cubs game on my phone while I'm at Wrigley Field, but under current MLB blackout rules, I can't do that.

So, while this FCC rule change is welcome, if it's passed, it might not end local baseball TV blackouts. That's still up to MLB. Hopefully, the new commissioner might not have his head stuck in the 1970s-era TV mindset of three local broadcast channels.

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