Markets Win, Gov't Tags Along: FCC to Rectify NFL Blackout Problem

“If we ever start valuing the TV audience more than the paying public,” NFL Commissioner Bert Bell explained on the eve of the 1958 Colts-Giants championship game, “we’ll be in trouble.” Nevertheless, 45 million viewers tuned in to the NFL’s coming out party. None of the viewers resided in America’s largest media market. Blackout rules prohibited the “greatest game ever played” from airing on television sets in the area of New York City because of the many unsold tickets at Yankee Stadium.

Fifty-five years later, the Federal Communications Commission seeks rid America of this vestige of the early television age, instilled after college football teams witnessed dramatic drops in live attendance after television began broadcasting games. The five FCC commissioners unanimously voted to open the proposal for public discussion.

They also asked Congress if they had the ability to retract the rule. This potential hurdle, and the fact that repealing the rule would enable leagues and broadcasters to come to the same agreement outside of government involvement, may make the FCC proposal a moot point.

And even without government intervention, blackouts have been almost entirely shut out this NFL season. Just one game—December 1’s Cincinnati at San Diego game—has been withdrawn from the home television market so far. This weekend’s Bills-Dolphins contest at chilly Ralph Wilson Stadium faces a near-certain blackout.

Last season, networks blacked out 15 of 256 games, down one game from the previous season. In the 1970s, it wasn’t unusual for half of all NFL games to endure hometown blackouts. Sports attendance has climbed dramatically since then, making blackouts unusual. The measure protecting paid attendance impacts other major professional sports to a lesser degree than the NFL because teams generally enjoy contracts with local broadcasters that forbid blackouts. Every regular season and playoff NFL game enjoys national networks covering it.  

Given that NFL teams rake in more than $4 billion in broadcast revenue alone, making gate receipts a much smaller portion of income than in the past, the blackout rule strikes some fans—particularly ones in Oakland, San Diego, Buffalo, and certain cities in Florida---and every FCC commissioner, as antiquated.

Even the NFL of Bert Bell, who had required white uniforms for visiting teams and colored uniforms for hosts in 1957 to accommodate black-and-white sets, bowed to King Television over its in-stadium subjects. When raucous Yankee Stadium fans jarred loose an NBC plug that replaced football with fuzz for home viewers, the broadcaster struck back by delaying 1958’s championship game—allegedly witnessing a network employee play wandering drunk on the field to stop play—for several minutes.

Thanks to NBC’s impromptu blackout, tens of millions of viewers saw Alan Ameche take a Johnny Unitas handoff to beat the Giants—and cover the spread. Thanks to the FCC’s intervention, it’s doubtful that viewers in Buffalo, Tampa, or Jacksonville will be saved from future blackouts. Fielding a few good players might solve their home-viewing hindrances more effectively than appealing to a few Washington, DC bureaucrats.

Viewers in New York City might have benefitted from government intervention on December 28, 1958. More than a half century later, the government seeks to alleviate a problem that the market has long since corrected.       

Daniel J. Flynn is the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game (Regnery, 2013).


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