FCC should end NFL blackout rule
The Federal Communications Commission is supposed to ensure that the electronic media serve the public interest. A rule currently on the FCC books, however, works primarily to serve the interests of some 30 of America’s wealthiest individuals. That’s why the FCC appears poised to end its blackout rule for National Football League games.
For many years, NFL television contracts have prohibited the broadcast of any game in a local market in which the stadium is not sold out. The NFL wants to guarantee the revenue stream that sold-out stadiums provide, even though some economists claim there is no connection between putting games on television and fan attendance at events.
The FCC decided in 1975 to support the NFL’s local broadcast ban for games in which tickets remain by also prohibiting cable or satellite services from bypassing the local ban with imported broadcasts of those blacked out games. Thus, the NFL, which already has anti-trust protection from the government, has also had FCC collaboration in preventing fans from seeing their hometown teams on television.
The rule was targeted late last football season by then acting FCC chair Mignon Clyburn, who proposed getting the FCC out of the sports blackout business and ordered a rulemaking process. Clyburn questioned whether the blackout rules were in the public interest, “particularly at a time when higher ticket prices and the economy make it difficult for many sports fans to attend games.”
Another FCC commissioner, Ajit Pai, had even stronger words against the rule in a speech last month in Buffalo. “I don’t believe the government should intervene in the marketplace and help sports leagues enforce their blackout policies. Our job is to serve the public interest, not the interests of team owners.”
The location of Pai’s speech is noteworthy. The Buffalo Bills games have been subject to blackouts more often in recent years than any other NFL team. By the way, late season games in Buffalo are cold. And the Bills haven’t had a winning season since 2004.
Current FCC chair Tom Wheeler has also announced his opposition and will call for an FCC vote to discontinue its blackout provisions at a meeting later this month.
The NFL faces fourth and very long in its efforts to keep this rule, but that hasn’t kept it from a massive lobbying/public relations effort, complete with scare tactics and half-baked reasoning. The NFL, for example, has enlisted the National Association of Broadcasters to threaten that elimination of the FCC rule could eventually lead to all games being telecast only on pay services, not free over-the-air channels. Missing from that argument is the fact that could only happen if the NFL itself chose to move in that direction.
The NFL has also gotten the support of the Conference of State Legislatures and the Congressional Black Caucus to claim that elimination of the rule would hurt local economies by keeping fans away on game days, thus harming stadium employees, nearby restaurant owners and so forth. The reality is that stadiums fail to sell out when teams lose too much or inclement weather interferes. The FCC blackout rule doesn’t fix either of these problems.
The NFL generates about $10 billion a year in revenue, the biggest chunks coming from television contracts and merchandising. Ticket sales just aren’t as big a factor as in 1975. It is unfathomable to think that the NFL will suffer financial harm if a few seats remain unsold in Jacksonville on a given weekend, but their long-suffering fans watch the game anyway on an imported cable signal. The NFL money machine generated $275 million in new money this fall by signing up CBS to air just eight Thursday night games. That should be more than enough to cover a few empty seats in Buffalo in December.
Virtually all NFL owners are billionaires. Meanwhile, television ratings hinge on the eyeballs of millions of fans who can’t afford to pay high prices to attend a game in person at stadiums, many of which were built with taxpayer money from these same fans. It is high time for the FCC to end this 40-year losing streak and win one for the fans.
Jeffrey M. McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., and author of “Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences.”