Blumenthal Prepping Sports Blackout Bill

To Preserve Antitrust Exemption, Leagues Would Need 'No Blackout' Clauses in Contracts with Video Distributors

Sen. Richard Blumenthal(D-Conn.) is working on a bill that would prevent the major professional sports leagues from allowing games to be blacked out during retransmission-consent disputes or other programming impasses.

The bill would apply to the National Football League, Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association and the National Hockey Leauge and is keyed to their antitrust exemptions.

The legislation does not require the leagues do anything -- at least not technically. But it does say that if they want to keep their exemptions, they need to make it part of their contracts that no video licensee , broadcaster or MVPD, can withhold their programming during a contractual dispute.

TV stations or cable operators could still black out their own programmingor big-ticket draws like the Oscars, owned content or college sports. But not the pro sports league games that are made possible thanks to the antitrust exemption, and tax-exempt status, and public subsidies for stadiums. Regional sports networks could also not withhold games during carriage disputes.

The bill would also require the leagues to make home games available online to viewers who can’t watch them on broadcast or cable. In that case, though, the issue is not tied to programming disputes, but rather where those viewers live in relation to their favorite team.

The leagues could still black out games online for anyone with a local area IP address showing they can get it on broadcast, for example.But in cases where, for example, MLB’s local areas in Boston and New York wind up overlapping and say, a Red Sox fan can only get the Mets on broadcast and the Yankees on their local cable operator, MLB would have to give them online access to the Sox, but would be allowed to charge a fee.

That provision is primarily targeted to MLB to get it to narrow those local areas if it wantsto keep its exemption.

Hill sources say those working on the bill have been in discussion with industry players ,including broadcasters, ESPN, Comcast and others. The bill has been tweaked with perhaps a couple more modifications to come. The timing of the bill’s introduction is unclear—the Senate and House were still at odds over the budget last week—but it could be introduced as early as next week.

Sports fans across the country are sick and tired of being blacked out of games of their favorite teams, My proposal would condition the broad anti-trust exemptions give to the leagues by Congress upon making their programming more available to fans, “ Blumenthal told Multichannel News in an e-mail. “It treats all players in the industry fairly and leaves the decisions up to the leagues whether they want to meet their public- interest obligations or lose their anti-trust exemptions.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) could be a co-sponsor, said one source. McCain’s office could not be reached for comment at press time.