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Robinson: Proposed changes could impact sports viewing on TV

| Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013, 9:20 p.m.
ASSOCIATED PRESS
Jaguars fans watch play the second half of a game against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013, at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.

As you remove the tinsel from your new 60-inch HDTV and scratch your head wondering where the HDMI cable plugs in, some changes in the sports-on-TV landscape might affect what you'll be watching on your game-room showpiece.

Some distant years away, they might even impact America's prize jewel of sports: the Super Bowl. Another proposed change has its roots in Pittsburgh.

• DirecTV is continuing negotiations aimed at retaining its NFL Sunday Ticket package, which enables fans in any city to watch any game they want, regardless of what their local broadcasters carry.

For example, if you want to watch Ravens-Patriots at 4:25 p.m. Sunday rather than Steelers-Packers, the Sunday Ticket package (about $299 per year) plus a DirecTV subscription and a dish are required.

There were signs last spring that DirecTV might relinquish its exclusivity to a package that costs $1 billion a year, a move that would have allowed cable companies to begin offering it. But DirecTV CEO Mike White said during a recent investors meeting that he is “very optimistic” the satellite company will retain Sunday Ticket. If it does, it means Comcast, Verizon FiOS, Armstrong Cable and every other local provider is out of the mix for years.

The current DirecTV deal expires at the end of the 2014 season, while the NFL's other TV contracts run through 2021 (ESPN) and 2022 (CBS, NBC and Fox).

• The Federal Communications Commission is moving closer to ending its 40-year-old sports blackout rule, which banned the NFL from blacking out telecasts of soldout home games in local markets.

The ban was lifted in 1973, in part because so many Steelers fans were unhappy at not being able to watch the Immaculate Reception playoff game and 1972 AFC championship game — both played at Three Rivers Stadium. Fans lobbied Pennsylvania's congressional delegation to lift the ban, and it was the following fall. Every Steelers home game since has been televised.

The FCC's proposed action would end all such blackouts, even for games that aren't sold out. Sports leagues still could negotiate private agreements with their TV rights holders.

While NFL blackouts once were common in markets such as Jacksonville, only one game this season has been blacked out, in part because games can be shown if 85 percent of all seats are sold three days before game day.

• The NFL and Major League Baseball are concerned about the new online TV service Aereo, which is available in 10 major markets, including New York, Boston and Baltimore. Its website promises Pittsburgh availability in the near future.

Aereo sells low-priced TV packages ($8 per month) for online viewing that includes access to the major networks — and thus NFL telecasts.

Unlike cable providers or DirecTV or Dish Network, Aereo — which is run by media mogul Barry Diller — does not pay the channels it resells. It circumvents that by renting to each customer a tiny TV antenna in a remote site that contains thousands of such antennas. Aereo has argued in various court cases that consumers have the right to receive over-the-air signals.

The NFL is worried that if Aereo expands, it will absorb subscribers from providers that pay for programming. There are rumblings that, if Aereo goes nationwide, the NFL will threaten at some distant date to take the Super Bowl off network TV.

Aereo's validity as an ongoing business is expected to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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