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In Praise of a Standstill Option

5/24/2010 11:46 AM

The great is the enemy of the good.Which translates to: Don’t blow our chance for some change by pushing for too much.

It was rush hour on the Beltway last week when it came to weighing in on the retransmission- consent regime. As the comments piled up, cable operators squared off against broadcasters over a system that’s either broken and skewed toward the unreasonable demands and unmerited market power of TV stations, or is a free market finally delivering closer to a fair price for valuable TV-station signals.

The reality is somewhere between those two points of view, which is where any fixes to the system with a chance of being implemented will be found.

In cable’s dreams, the FCC would mandate outside arbitration and get rid of network nonduplication and syndicated exclusivity rules. But in the real world, the first is a long shot and the other two are nonstarters.

Cablevision Systems’ call for an all-cash regime is a 180-degree change from the early days of cable’s carriage deals and suggests it may have been a mistake for operators to work on the barter system. It was cable carriage of those co-owned channels that grew their popularity and made them worth paying a license fee, which then emboldened broadcasters to ask for fees for their TV stations, which now has cable operators calling for FCC intervention to right what they see as an imbalance.

Intervention is what National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow usually would rather avoid, as government help is a sword that cuts both ways.

Here’s what seems doable and reasonable: a standstill agreement, keeping broadcast signals flowing to multichannel customers while both parties continue to bargain in good faith, and only as a fail-safe for intractable impasses.

It’s the kind of light-touch, consumer- focused move that should not lead to end-of-the-world hand-wringing - though don’t count on it - particularly if, as broadcasters argue, such impasses are scarce.

Cox, a company on both sides of the retransmission equation, commented sagely, “Television viewers are ill served by public business negotiations that leave them confused, used as pawns in disputes between communications companies, then deprived of the signals of local broadcasters that the Commission has licensed to serve them.”

Sometimes, standing still is moving forward.

September