The FCC issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking Wednesday proposing the elimination of the agency's local sports blackout rules.
The FCC instituted blackout rules back in 1973 to help make sure that local sports stadiums were not empty on game days because all the locals were at home watching the game on TV. So the FCC allowed the local sports franchise to black out games that hadn't sold a certain amount of tickets. It further ruled that if the local broadcast station couldn't carry blacked-out games, then the cable company serving the area couldn't either.
It's a money thing, and a huge annoyance for sports fans.
"These needless policies restrict what viewers can watch, and what programming cable systems can carry, in the name of protecting local broadcasters from competition and boosting ticket sales to sporting events," John Bergmayer, senior staff attorney at Public Knowledge.
Public Knowledge points out that even if the rule is eliminated, however, broadcasters, leagues, and cable systems might still privately negotiate contracts that have the effect of limiting the sports programming choices are available to viewers. The elimination of the rule really just gets the FCC out of the business of regulating the whole thing.
So even without the FCC involved, wouldn't the local broadcasters and sports franchises still be able to prohibit cable companies from carrying local games?
"The fact that the FCC steps in and says that these blackouts are allowed by a statute can really affect what might be negotiated between the parties," Bergmayer told me during a follow-up phone conversation. "It can really limit the creativity and flexibility the parties can bring to bear in coming to an agreement that might be better for consumers."
In other words, if the FCC removes the rule, the end result of negotiations might not always be a blackout. If cable companies can negotiate terms to carry local market games in some cases, well, that's better than what we have now.
Arizona senator John McCain has been carrying this torch for a long time now. McCain introduced a bill in 2008 that would have done away with the FCC rule, which was enacted to back up a blackout rule adopted by the NFL in 1973.
McCain, testifying in a May Senate subcommittee hearing said: "Now, if that stadium is not taxpayer-financed, then that owner can do anything they want to. But if the taxpayers paid for them then, by God, I think the taxpayers ought to be able to see the game whether they sell out the stadium or not."
Perhaps McCain and his clout in DC finally got through to the folks at the FCC. Or maybe McCain is a golf buddy of new FCC chairman Tom Wheeler.
Now that the FCC has proposed eliminating the rule, the normal process allows for all the interested parties to file opinions agreeing with or disagreeing with the proposal. The FCC reviews those arguments then makes its decision. The process will likely take the better part of next year to complete.
Hopefully they'll settle it in time for baseball season.