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No More Blackouts, Maybe

James O'Neal is the Technology Editor for TV Technology.

With the clock ticking its way down to Super Bowl XLVI, another sports-related countdown also comes to mind also. This is, of course, the response window for comments on the rulemaking petition submitted to the FCC last month that is seeking an end to the decades-old decree requiring the "blacking out" live sporting events on cable and satellite systems at the will of the sports leagues and team owners.

Actually, the practice of "blacking out" major sports events on stations serving markets where these events are played has been with us long before the cable and satellite groups began to eclipse off-air broadcasting's reach. Although I'm not sure when the first such blackout occurred or who was playing whom, television sports blackouts extend at least into the 60s. Team owners have always squawked about economic losses when games are made available by local off-air, cable and satellite distribution outlets, thus watering down sales of those sometimes way over-priced stadium tickets.

Back then, the FCC sided with the owners in the megabuck (now gigabuck) sports industry and required station owners to fill airtime with something else if too many tickets remained unsold at game time.

Now the commission has decided to take another look at the cable and sat blackout rule, offering that this may be another of those rulings and decisions that technology has made obsolete (and unrealistic).

Broadcasting and sports have been joined at the hip ever since primitive radio coverage of the 1921 Dempsey-Carpentier heavyweight "battle of the century" reached the 300,000 or so fans that couldn't make it to ringside and followed the match via headphones and horn speakers.

It was this sort of special event coverage that convinced great masses to purchase radios, and later television sets (and still later, color TVs and HD displays). Fans don't like to be locked out of enjoying broadcasts of a major league event if they don't have the price of a ticket, can't make it to the stadium, or for whatever reason. It just makes 'em mad and determined to watch the game at all costs. Recall, if you will, the irate Canadian hockey fan back in the 1960s who decided to hacksaw a guyline on CKLW-TV's Windsor, Ontario tower, due to that station's blackout of NHL playoffs. Fortunately, winds were calm that night and riggers were able to save the mast (and the neighborhood surrounding it).

The ire of fans was channeled a bit more creatively, when "Popular Science" magazine printed an article titled "How to Beat Those Football Blackouts" in September 1971. It all boiled down to the fact that radio waves don't recognize state (or city) boundaries and if you had enough antenna, you could once again be on the 50 yard line. The piece advised fans to purchase multi-element Yagis (stacking them four deep if necessary), rotors, pre-amps, and even adjacent channel notch filters. I imagine that Winegard, CDR, Channel Master Jerrold and others received quite a windfall.

Heck, getting around sports broadcast restrictions even go back to radio days. Back in my home state in the 1930s, one of the Little Rock stations wanted to carry the home games of the Arkansas Travelers baseball team. The owner nixed the deal, citing the same reason that major leagues did later—broadcasts will cut stadium attendance. It seems that the station was determined and quickly came up with a "Plan B," renting space from a homeowner whose property was adjacent to the ball park and getting the phone company to string a local loop to the front yard. The sportscaster provided play-by-play from high atop the branches of a conveniently located tree.

Today, tree climbing or even high-gain antenna arrays are no longer necessary to enjoy a blacked out sporting event; Slingbox and other techno goodies have seen to that. (It doesn't take a lot of surfing to find Websites with detailed instructions on how to enjoy blacked out games with the help of such Internet friends as JustinTV, Ustream, firstrow, streamwatch, and others.)

I'm not the biggest sports fan in the country, but I'd certainly like to see the commission do away with another of their antiquated (and from its intention—unenforceable) rules. (And I don't think its elimination will be driving major league team owners to the poorhouse anytime soon. Just consider the megabucks that will be changing hands between NBC Sports and the team owners on Feb. 5.)