Broadcast Blackout

blackout by david stroud

Blackout usually relates to the broadcasting of sports events, television programming, that is prohibited in a certain media market. The purpose is theoretically to generate more revenue by obliging certain actions from fans, either by making them buy tickets or watch other games on TV.

While financially a logical procedure on the part of those providing the programming, blackouts are frequently unpopular with the affected audience as it will cause some fans to miss the game completely even if they were willing to enter the stadium and pay. A similar term, known as preemption, often refers to stations blacking out a program for other than regulatory or governmental reasons, such as when a local station preempts a television network program for local news or a special program.

Perhaps the most notable non-sports-related blackout in television is the blackout of Canadian federal election coverage. Because there are six time zones in Canada, polls close in different parts of the country at different times. The Canada Elections Act outlaws publishing election results in constituencies where polls were still open, ostensibly to prevent the results from the East from influencing voters in the West.

Many Canadian Football League games are subject to local blackouts. For example, Edmonton Eskimos home games are not broadcast in Edmonton or the immediate surrounding area to ensure that fans buy tickets. In the case of Saskatchewan Roughriders home games the blackout zone covers the entire province of Saskatchewan, largely because that team relies more than the others on province-wide support. The home team has the option of lifting a blackout for games that sell out. Unlike in the NFL however, the home team is not obliged to lift a blackout in such cases.

Unlike the policies governing professional football broadcasts, the National Hockey League has no blackout policy that is dependent on ticket sales, therefore nationally televised games are never blacked out in any part of the country. However, regional broadcasts under the authority of individual NHL teams are subject to blackout outside the teams’ designated home territories. As an exception, French language rights to the Canadiens are owned by RDS, a national French-language sports network. As its contract is technically a national NHL contract (albeit one negotiated through the Canadiens), that channel is allowed to carry all Canadiens games nationally.

Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League have very similar blackout rules. Unlike the National Football League, the blackout of games have nothing to do with attendance, but instead are implemented to protect broadcasters with contracts to air games. Unless a national broadcaster has exclusive rights to a certain game, the local broadcaster of a game has priority over a national broadcaster — so if ESPN or MLB Network is airing a game that is also being aired by the local broadcaster, the national feed would be blacked out in markets where a local broadcaster is also showing coverage.

Fox has exclusive rights to any MLB games starting between 4:00 PM ET and 7:00 PM ET on Saturdays, and ESPN holds exclusive rights to games starting after 8:00 PM ET on Sundays. In either case, both broadcasters have exclusivity during their respective time windows. The Atlanta Braves, Texas Rangers, and Florida Marlins, who play in open-air stadiums in extremely hot climates (making night games a necessity in the summer months) are often granted waivers so as to allow their local networks to carry the games (unless however the game is shown by a national broadcaster).

In the NHL, the policy has changed in recent years. Now, most national cable games are shown throughout the country. Occasionally, the league will grant its cable partner an exclusive window and not schedule any other games involving U.S. teams at that time.

In MLB there are no radio blackouts. However, for many years, the radio networks of the two participating ballclubs in the World Series were not allowed to air games, forcing flagship stations, if they wanted to broadcast the Series, to simulcast the network broadcast. This changed after 1980, fans of the Philadelphia Phillies were angry that they couldn’t hear their popular broadcasting team of Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn call their run to the title. Since then, only the flagship stations of the two participating ballclubs can originate coverage.

The NBA and the WNBA used to black out nationally televised games on cable TV within 35 miles of the home team’s market; however, these are now restricted to games on NBA TV.

In the NFL, any broadcaster that has a signal that hits any area within a 75 miles  radius of an NFL stadium may only broadcast a game if that game is a road game, or if the game sells out 72 hours or more before the start time for the game. Furthermore, broadcasters with NFL contracts are required to show their markets’ road games, even if the secondary markets have substantial fanbases for other teams (like in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, officially a Baltimore Ravens secondary market, but home to a lot of Pittsburgh Steelers fans).

Sometimes if a game is within a few hundred tickets of selling out, a broadcaster with rights to show the nearly sold out game will buy the remaining tickets (and give them to local charities) so it can broadcast the game. Other teams elect to close off sections of their stadium, but cannot sell these tickets for any game that season if they choose to do so.

One notable exceptions to the rule is for the Green Bay Packers, which have two overlapping 75-mile blackout zones—one surrounding the team’s stadium in Green Bay and another surrounding Milwaukee. The team’s radio flagship station is in Milwaukee, and the Packers played part of their home schedule in Milwaukee from 1953 through 1994. However, this policy has never been implemented in the Packers’ case, as they have sold out every home game in Green Bay since 1960 and have a decades-long season-ticket waiting list (games in Milwaukee also sold out during this period).

The NFL blackout is considered to be detrimental to financially struggling teams. For instance, most notably, the Los Angeles Rams were unable to sell-out their home games during their last years in that city (a notable exception being the 1994 game against then-crosstown rivals the Raiders). So a blackout further robbed the franchise of potential revenue and alienated remaining fans. The Rams relocated to St. Louis before the 1995 season (the Raiders also left LA, going back to their original home in Oakland).

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