Sports broadcasting: it’s both lucrative and confusing. Sometimes you can turn on the TV and watch a game that’s taking place in your own hometown, and sometimes you can’t. When you can’t, you’re part of a broadcast blackout.
Blackout rules are part of a whole galaxy of rules, regulations, and agreements that cover sports broadcast rights. The FCC is moving to try to repeal the law that makes them mandatory.
The rules date back to a time when TV was only a thing that went over the air to antennas and sports leagues’ revenues came mainly from selling tickets to games. The logic ran that if everyone could stay at home and watch the game for free, nobody would actually go out in the cold to the stadium and pay money to sit there and watch the game instead. So if a Sunday football game hadn’t sold out by Thursday night, the local broadcaster with rights to air that game was subject to a blackout, and couldn’t run it.
As television evolved, the rules were adapted to include cable, satellite, and telecom-provided TV carriers in the blackout restrictions. The pile of added-on laws and regulations has, over the past forty years, become somewhat unweildy. The FCC’s proposal (PDF) would eliminate the blackout rule, once and for all.
Although the proposed rule change would no longer require blackouts under certain conditions, the NFL, NHL, NBA, and MLB would still be allowed to set carriage contract agreements. And in those agreements, leagues can get pretty much whatever they want blacked out:
The Petitioners acknowledge that eliminating the Commission’s sports blackout rules alone likely would not end local sports blackouts as sports fans may wish. We note that the leagues’ underlying blackout policies would remain, and, as discussed above, the leagues may be able to obtain the same blackout protection provided under our rules through free market negotiations. The leagues also could still require local television stations to black out games; thus, consumers that rely on over-the-air television would still be unable to view blacked-out games. Moreover, repeal of our sports blackout rules alone would not provide relief to consumers that are subject to blackouts resulting from the leagues’ use of expansive home territories.
So although your cable, satellite, or broadcast carrier would no longer be required by law to black out the football game taking place five miles down the road, someone will still be controlling that signal. The rule can change, but the TV that comes into your living room probably won’t.