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In broadcasting, the term blackout refers to the non-airing of television or radio programming in a certain media market. It is particularly prevalent in the broadcasting of sports events, although other television or radio programs may be blacked out as well.
A similar term, known as preemption (or pre-emption), 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 (an example of a regular preemption) or a special program (an example of a one-time preemption).
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. Section 329 of the Canada Elections Act outlaws publishing election results from other ridings in constituencies where polls were still open, ostensibly to prevent the results from the East from influencing voters in western ridings.
However, in the federal election in 2000, one Paul Charles Bryan published results from Atlantic Canada on the Internet despite being told not to by the authorities. Bryan was charged before the Provincial Court of British Columbia, but fought the charges as unconstitutional under section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects freedom of expression and freedom of association. Bryan's victory before the British Columbia Supreme Court meant that voters in British Columbia and the rest of Canada legally learned of election results in other ridings during the federal election in 2004. However, Elections Canada appealed, and Bryan lost his case before the British Columbia Court of Appeal. Bryan further appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, but in a ruling made on March 15, 2007 (R. v. Bryan), in a 5-4 ruling, the Court ruled that Section 329 of the Canada Elections Act is constitutional and justified under section 1 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Stephen Harper, who later became Prime Minister, labelled Elections Canada "jackasses" and tried to raise money for Bryan. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation also supported Bryan, hoping to "make election night a bigger event that it already is."
Before the 2000 election, Elections Canada moved to reduce the effects of the blackout and the influence of unauthorized knowledge of election results in Western ridings by altering the times that polls close so that polls no longer close at the same local time throughout the country. Polls in Atlantic Canada now close at 9 p.m. Atlantic (9:30 in Newfoundland). Polls from Alberta to Quebec close an hour later (9 p.m. Eastern, 8 p.m. Central and 7 p.m. Mountain) and finally, polls in B.C. close an hour after that (7 p.m. Pacific). Historically, the results of the election are often not decisively known until more than an hour after polls close in Ontario and Quebec, but are usually known within two hours of these polls closing.
Provincial elections are not subject to blackout restrictions - in those provinces that have two time zones the vast majority of the population lives in one time zone or the other. Election laws in these provinces stipulate that all polls are to close at the same time - this time invariably being 8:00 p.m. (or 9:00 p.m. in Ontario beginning with the 2007 provincial election) in the time zone of the majority.
On August 17, 2011, Elections Canada Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand suggested to Parliament that the current voting system needs to be improved, the improvements including a repeal on the ban of early election results in areas where polls are still open; this is in light of the expanded use of social media to transmit results outside of radio and television. According to his report, Mayrand says that "the growing use of social media puts in question not only the practical enforceability of the rule, but also its very intelligibility and usefulness in a world where the distinction between private communication and public transmission is quickly eroding. The time has come for Parliament to consider revoking the current rule." On January 13, 2012, it was announced that the federal government will introduce legislation that would repeal the blackout rule, citing the increased use of social media as the reason, although as of April 2013, this has yet to be implemented.
All Canadian Football League games on TSN 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.
Nationally-televised games on the CBC's Hockey Night in Canada and on TSN are never blacked out in any part of the country. However, until about 1970, TV broadcasts of regular-season games did not show the complete game, but always joined it in progress. Blackouts also do not apply to "regional" broadcasts carried by over-the-air stations in the United States, such as Chicago Blackhawks games carried by WGN-TV (which is carried by many Canadian providers as a superstation).
As in the U.S., regional broadcasts are carried by regional sports networks such as Sportsnet and TSN's part-time feeds for Winnipeg and Montreal, and are typically blacked out outside of the team's respective market. Sportsnet's four regional networks correspond with each of its NHL teams' designated markets; while the East, Ontario, and Pacific feeds are designated to one team each (the Senators, Maple Leafs, and Canucks), Sportsnet West is shared by the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames, with Alberta and Saskatchewan as their home market for blackout purposes. Although Sportsnet West is carried in Manitoba, games began to be blacked out in the 2011-12 season following the return of the Winnipeg Jets.
If another game with a Canadian team begins before the end of TSN's coverage of a Wednesday night game, its broadcaster would be required to join it in progress after TSN's coverage has concluded. However, in response to criticism from fans (mostly surrounding the planned blackout being caused by a Toronto Maple Leafs game), TSN exempted a February 2012 game featuring the Edmonton Oilers from the rule, allowing Sportsnet to broadcast the complete game.
There are no blackouts in French-language coverage of the NHL; rights to the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators are respectively held by Canada's two national French-language sports channels, RDS (a sister network to TSN) and TVA Sports. RDS's contract with the Canadiens also includes French-language rights to other NHL games and the playoffs.
MLB/NHL blackout policies
Major League Baseball
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 (such as an FSN network for example) 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. Similar blackouts occur on other networks which telecast nationally, such as WGN, although this would be considered a local broadcast in Chicago respectively since the network only covers its local team (the game would be blacked out in the opponent's market only). The same restriction was in place when TBS televised the Atlanta Braves, which was a local broadcast in Atlanta.
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 and Texas Rangers, 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). For FOX, this generally applies to one time-slot per market, since its coverage is not usually a doubleheader. Thus, local television coverage is allowed during the other time-slot, but the game will not air on MLB Extra Innings.
Starting with the new MLB TV contract in 2007, TBS will telecast a Sunday afternoon game-of-the-week, but no nationwide exclusivity is granted to the network, thus the TBS broadcast is blacked out in the market areas of the competing teams. The same contract will grant Fox more flexible start times for broadcasts. (Up to the 2011 season, Fox would start games at 3 PM ET on Saturdays where NASCAR Sprint Cup races in Fort Worth, TX, Richmond, VA and Florence, SC are broadcast on Fox) may expand the window of exclusivity; also starting in 2011, some games are set for 7:30 PM ET starts, mainly because a late May game has to start there, as Fox has coverage of the UEFA Champions League Final, which kicks off at 2:45 PM EDT (8:30 PM Central European time). In 2012, Fox set 1 PM ET starts on Saturdays where the three NASCAR Saturday night races would be held that evening, and from the UEFA Finals Day until the Saturday before All-Star Break, all game broadcasts were 7 PM EDT. The 3:30 PM EDT start remains for all other Saturdays. Because of the FA Cup presented by Budweiser Final and the Florence NASCAR race weekend, there was no Fox baseball game on that weekend in 2013.
National Hockey League
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. For NBC's network coverage in the 2006–2007 season, only games it televised could air during its window, airing different games by region. The coverage was changed in the 2007–2008 season to a Game of the Week format.
If a regional sports network owns the rights to two NHL teams that are competing in the same game, the NHL will allow the channel to use SAP to carry commentary from both teams throughout both teams' coverage areas on the same channel. This most commonly happens with MSG Network, which owns the broadcast rights to four NHL teams from fairly disparate areas: New Jersey's New Jersey Devils, Long Island's New York Islanders, New York City's New York Rangers, and Buffalo's Buffalo Sabres (although the Sabres control the entire production of their broadcast through the Sabres Hockey Network, while MSG produces the other three broadcasts). For instance, though MSG will only produce one pregame and postgame show for a game between the Islanders and Sabres, they will carry the Sabres Hockey Network on the main audio feed in upstate New York and the Islanders' commentators on SAP; however, in New York City and Long Island, viewers hear the Islanders broadcasters on the main feed and the Sabres commentators on SAP.
Additionally in the NHL, local and regional networks are not granted broadcasts rights for national televised games by Comcast's NBC broadcast network or cable NBC Sports Network, or during the playoffs, any Comcast channel showing an NHL playoff game. A recent controversy arose in 2009 when satellite provider DirecTV stopped offering Versus following a dispute with Versus owner and competitor Comcast.
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.
As an example, while Boston Red Sox radio flagship WHDH and St. Louis Cardinals flagship station KMOX both broadcast the 1967 World Series, both stations had to simulcast the NBC Radio Network broadcast along with Boston's WCOP and St. Louis' KSD, the nominal NBC Radio affiliates in those cities.
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, though their broadcasts are also available on XM Satellite Radio. XM is required to broadcast the home, away, and both English and Spanish national feeds of the World Series. All other network affiliates of the two clubs must carry the feed from MLB's national partner (currently ESPN Radio), and they may not even be able to do so if they compete with an ESPN Radio affiliate in the same market.
Additionally, radio stations (including flagships) may not include MLB games in the live Internet streams of their station programming. MLB itself offers radio feeds as a pay service via the league and team websites. Some stations will simply stream the station's regularly scheduled programming that is being preempted by the game.
The NHL has neither radio blackouts nor national terrestrial coverage. All games are streamed online and home game feeds are broadcast on XM.
NBA blackout policy
Prior to the 1998-99 NBA lockout, the NBA and the WNBA used to black out nationally televised games on cable TV within 35 miles (56 km) of the home team's market; however, these are now restricted to games on NBA TV.
NFL blackout policy
In the NFL, any broadcaster that has a signal that hits any area within a 75 miles (121 km) radius of an NFL stadium may only broadcast a game if that game is a road game (also known as an away game), or if the game sells out 72 hours or more before the start time for the game. If sold out in less than 72 hours, or is close to being sold out by the deadline, the team can sometimes request a time extension. 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. As a result, if the home team's game is a Sunday day game both networks can air only one game each in that market. (Until 2001, this rule applied whether or not the game was blacked out, however, this was changed because some markets virtually never aired doubleheaders as a result.) Usually, but not always, when each network can show only one game each in a market, the two stations work out between themselves which will show an early game and which will show a late game. This only affects the primary market, and not markets in a 75-mile (121 km) radius, which always get a doubleheader each Sunday.
There are two exceptions to the rule. The first 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 second exception is for the Bills Toronto Series; by a technicality, Rogers Communications (the team's lessee) owns all tickets to those games and resells them to potential fans. Thus, even if the games do not sell out, it is still technically a sellout (since Rogers is said to have bought the tickets) and the games are televised. This rule has come into play for both Toronto Series preseason games.
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).
For other games, no station within the 75-mile (121 km) radius of an NFL stadium may broadcast a game unless it has an affiliation deal with one of the local teams involved. One instance of the practice of this rule was over Hartford, Connecticut CBS affiliate WFSB trying to air a New England Patriots-New York Giants game for December 29, 2007, which would be carried only on the NFL's cable network NFL Network that at the time was available only on a sports channel package of Comcast Cable in the immediate viewing areas of the Patriots and Giants.
On December 12, 2007, Broadcasting & Cable reported that Senator John Kerry and Rep. Ed Markey, both of the state of Massachusetts and fans of the New England Patriots team, wrote to the NFL as well as Comcast Cable and Time Warner Cable to request that the Patriots-Giants game be aired at least on basic cable in order to reach the highest possible number of television-viewing fans, as at the time the Patriots were undefeated, and Kerry and Markey viewed the game as "potentially historic", according to John Eggerton of B&C. Kerry clarified the next week that he did not intend to interrupt current negotiations between the cable operators and NFL. On December 19, 2007, representative Joe Courtney (D-CT) and other members of the Connecticut Congressional Delegation wrote to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to try to have the NFL allow wider broadcast access to the game. Consequently, on December 26, the NFL approved the game to be simulcast from NFL Network to both the CBS and NBC networks, along with WCVB in the Boston market and WWOR-TV in the New York City market.
In June 2012, NFL blackout regulations were revised in which, for the first time in NFL history, home games will no longer require a total sellout to be televised locally; instead, teams will be allowed to set a benchmark anywhere from 85 to 100 percent of the stadium's non-premium seats. Any seats sold beyond that benchmark will be subject to heavier revenue sharing. However, four teams, the Buffalo Bills, the Cleveland Browns, the Indianapolis Colts and the San Diego Chargers, have opted out of the new rules, as it would require the teams to pay a higher percentage of gate fees to the NFL's revenue fund.
For radio broadcasts, the NFL follows a nearly identical policy to MLB. There are no radio blackouts, but only each team's flagship station can carry local broadcasts during the conference championships or Super Bowl. All other markets must carry the NFL on Westwood One feed for those games. For all other weeks, within 75 miles of a team's stadium, only stations the team or its flagship station contracts with can carry those games, regardless if the team is home or away. Thus, any competing station that carries Westwood One broadcasts cannot air those games. Like MLB, the NFL makes local broadcasts (except for those of the Tennessee Titans) available on FieldPass and Sirius Satellite Radio; as a result, radio stations that carry NFL games, from any source, and stream on the Internet are prohibited from streaming games online, although it seems this provision is loosely enforced in some cases; WBBM in Chicago regularly airs live broadcasts of Chicago Bears games over their Internet stream.
Major League Soccer applies local blackout rights for the broadcasts of the following teams as a part of MLS Direct Kick:
MLS Direct Kick contains MLS games originating from either a regional sports network (RSN) or a local over–the–air (OTA) station and delivers these games to customers who purchase this subscription. These games are not otherwise available to DirecTV subscribers because they are broadcast outside of a subscriber's local area. Further, MLS games shown nationally on ESPN, ESPN2, TeleFutura and ABC are not included as part of this sports subscription.
The Indy 500 is blacked out in the Indianapolis area on television in order to encourage race attendance, thus WRTV, the ABC affiliate in Indianapolis, carries the race tape-delayed in primetime instead. The radio broadcast can still be heard on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network, and some fringe parts of the market can watch the race via affiliates in Fort Wayne (WPTA), Terre Haute (WAWV-TV), Dayton, Ohio (WKEF), and Louisville, Kentucky (WHAS-TV) . In the early years of the Brickyard 400, that event was also blacked out locally as the track's television contract between IMS and ABC applied for both races. However, that policy ended after 2000 when NASCAR switched to a unified, NASCAR-controlled, television contract.
- "Supreme Court upholds blackout on early election night results". CBC.ca (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). 2007-03-15. Retrieved 2007-06-26.
- The Globe and Mail: "Lift election-night blackout and test e-voting, electoral officer says", August 17, 2011.
- Elections Canada: "Report of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada on the 41st General Election of May 2, 2011", August 17, 2011.
- CTV News: "Feds lifting ban on publishing early election results", January 13, 2012.
- Pasaan, Jeff (2006-07-11). "Selig's Promise". Yahoo.com. Yahoo! Sports. Retrieved 2006-09-11.
- Hiestand, Michael (2006-07-11). "TBS drops Braves games, joins Fox in rich TV deal". USAToday.com (USA Today). Retrieved 2006-09-11.
- NFL Sunday Ticket FAQ
- Lomeli, Andrew (2006-10-10). "NFL blackout blunder". The Stanford Daily. Retrieved 2007-07-03.[dead link]
- "Edwards leads Bills in win vs. Steelers". Associated Press. 2008-08-14.
- Pergament, Alan (2010-08-20). "TV Interest in Bills Increases". Still Talkin' TV.
- Eggerton, John (2007-12-21). "WFSB Wants Patriots-Giants Game". Broadcasting & Cable. Retrieved 2007-12-21.
- Eggerton, John (2007-12-12). "Kerry Wants to Huddle with NFL, Cable Operators". Broadcasting & Cable. Retrieved 2007-12-21.
- Eggerton, John (2007-12-18). "Kerry Continues to Pressure NFL, Comcast, Time Warner". Broadcasting & Cable. Retrieved 2007-12-21.
- Hemingway, Jon (2007-12-26). "NFL OKs Patriots-Giants Game for Broadcast". Broadcasting & Cable. Retrieved 2007-12-29.
- Report: NFL team owners get more flexibility on blackouts. The Buffalo News. Retrieved June 30, 2012.
- The Buffalo News: "Bills aren't alone on blackout policy", August 14, 2012.