4 Ways to Beat a TV Blackout

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NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Two games of the World Series were wiped off the slate for some major-market sports fans, 13 National Football League games weren't seen in their home markets this season and certain service subscribers missed new episodes of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. So why don't you have a backup plan?

For consumers in the know and sports fans with a modicum of tech savvy, there was no reason for missing Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain's starts for the San Francisco Giants as they strode out to a 2-0 series lead en route to their franchise's first championship in 56 years. Sure, News Corp.'s (Stock Quote: NWS) Fox was blocking content to Cablevision (Stock Quote: CVC) during their 14-day fee dispute, but there was also a lot of unnecessary wailing over the "loss" of free content carried over taxpayer-funded airwaves.

For football fans in Tampa, Fla., Buffalo, N.Y., Oakland, Calif., Detroit and San Diego who saw those same airwaves closed off to their home team's games this season because the stadium didn't sell out 72 hours before kickoff, the autonomy given to the NFL by the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961 and the NFL blackout policy enacted in 1973 isn't enough to extort them out of an average ticket price estimated by Team Marketing Report to have hit $76.47. As for television shows, viewers have too many alternative methods of getting to content to tremble when Fox withdraws first-run programming during a nearly monthlong dispute with the Dish Network (Stock Quote: DISH).

Cable providers will try to tell you there's no such thing as cord-cutting, while the NFL will disavow any alternatives to its free content. Comcast (Stock Quote: CMCSA) points to the economy when asked about the 275,000 cable subscribers it lost last quarter and the 622,000 it has lost already this year. Time Warner says the same about the 155,000 subscribers it lost last quarter, saying it can't "identify any increase in cord-cutting." Yet Verizon (Stock Quote: VZ) chief executive Ivan Seidenberg, who's seen the changes in the cable industry firsthand through his company's FiOS offerings, told The Associated Press last month that consumers' frustration with and retreat from cable -- and cable companies' reaction to it -- reminds him of the flight from landline telephones: "The first thing that happens is you deny it ... I know the drill, I have been there."

The NFL, meanwhile, has provided more cease-and-desist notices than home-game broadcasts to sports bars in Tampa and San Diego that have circumvented local blackouts by stretching a cord over to their laptops and streaming game feeds from Internet sites. While the threat of a $250,000 fine for showing a game "without the express written consent of the NFL" prevents most barkeeps from playing that card more than once, those same sites allow American fans to sidestep the NFL's archaic system and retake control of the airwaves and federal antitrust agreement the league so graciously borrows from them.

Because no spat between a channel and cable provider should ever affect a consumer on the couch and no NFL team's sorry record or marketing department's inability to fill seats should shut fans out on game day, here are five ways for consumers to keep their screen lit during a blackout:

An antenna
This has become the punchline to every consumer television quandary since infant satellite companies lacked local access and the government demanded a switch to digital. That said, get an antenna.

A simple set of Audiovox (Stock Quote: VOXX) RCA rabbit ears retails for $9 and, in certain markets, culls more than 20 digital channels. Among those channels are local CBS (Stock Quote: CBS), ABC, NBC and Fox affiliates available in full high-definition that often comes at a premium for basic cable subscribers. This prevents consumers from paying fees for free television as network affiliates squeeze cable companies for a bigger piece of the pie while giving freeloaders all the quality HD content cable subscribers' fees help provide.

While Philips, Motorola (Stock Quote: MOT) and Audiovox's Terk offer a range of enhancements such as amplified antennas and signal boosters for $25 to $40, even low end equipment can bring fans a better view of the World Series than Cablevision provided for Games 1 and 2.

DirecTV's Sunday Ticket Package
Instead of complaining about your team's home game being blacked out on the local affiliate or ESPN, why not complain about the local affiliates and ESPN being your only options? No, NFL Sunday Ticket subscribers don't dodge blackouts entirely when they pay their average of $325, but they miss less than most fans.

The one thing that's clear after this season's 13 NFL home-game blackouts is that the NFL has no interest in slighting fans who'll pay to see its product. That's why DirecTV's (Stock Quote: DTV) Sunday Ticket is packed with every game on the slate -- meaning there's something better on than your blacked-out team's blowout against a 2-7 nonconference foe -- a Game Mix channel with up to eight games at once, a stats channel for fantasy football junkies, a Short Cuts channel for those only patient enough to watch a game in 30 minutes or less and mobile access.

The key to the whole mix, however -- one Verizon, Comcast and AT&T (Stock Quote: T) U-Verse customers pay a premium for without getting any of the Ticket's extra content -- is the NFL's high-definition, blackout-proof RedZone channel. RedZone subscribers whose blacked-out team is driving for a go-ahead touchdown still get to see all the action once their squad gets inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Critical interceptions and kick runbacks? Those are covered, too. So what's blacked out? A lot of equipment adjusting, quirky color commentary, bad offside penalties and midfield futility. Besides costing $325 per season (which is still less than the $420-plus cost of taking a family of four to one game), exactly how is the Sunday Ticket less enjoyable than a full local game?

Streaming sites

We're not talking about Google's (Stock Quote: GOOG) YouTube, but sites such as Justin.tv, BlipTV and Ustream that have hosted alternate feeds and fan feeds of games throughout the NFL season. Just before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers announced that their entire home schedule would be blacked out, frustrated fans in Tampa were already heeding tips from the Tampa Tribune and bloggers to storm these sites for game footage. Sports bar owners have taken notice as well, which has led to some tension between the big-screened beer-and-apps businesses and the NFL.

Make no mistake, broadcasting games this way is absolutely illegal. The NFL's broadcast policy makes no bones about it, and a decided lack of legal challenges by the bars only confirms it. For desperate fans, however, it's as worth the risk as a peer-to-peer Duran Duran download. The sites are fairly easy to navigate and the quality of broadcasts on sites such as ATDHE.net -- which provides streams of professional soccer, basketball, golf and hockey games as well -- ranges from decidedly average to above adequate.

While we can't necessarily condone this option, blackout-stricken NFL fans aren't seeking moral validation -- they're seeking games, which these sites have at their regularly scheduled times.

Hulu

This is the one word the Dish Network should have used over and over again in its feud with Fox.

Hulu doesn't have any Fox Sports content, but it does have just about every bit of entertainment content Fox and its legions of pinstriped lawyers attempt to withhold from viewers every time baby doesn't get enough bottle. "Wah, we don't like our Dish Network contract so we're going to cut off the public's supply of Glee!"

Wrong, sucko. This is an on-demand society that doesn't care if it watches Family Guy on Sunday in prime time or five years later at midnight, after you've canceled the show and its catalog moves over to a cartoon channel's late-night lineup for the college kids and stoners. You see, Fox, when you went into your partnership agreement with Disney's ABC and GE's NBC-Universal back in 2007 and gave away your new Fox, FX and other channels' episodes five at a clip, you undercut any reasonable argument you may have made for increasing fees.

Did you really think your little huffy tantrums directed at Dish Network and Cablevision were going to stop us from watching Bones on Hulu a day after its original air date? Please, this may be the season Bones and Booth hook up! We didn't even have to pay the $9.99 Hulu Plus subscription rate to catch up. If all your content is out there and all we need to enjoy it is an Internet connection and 15 seconds worth of patience to sit through the mini commercials, what's the bargaining chip?

Here's a hint, Fox: Removing one bulb from your chandelier doesn't black us out. It just makes you look a little dim.

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