News

In Praise of a Standstill Option

5/24/2010 6:05 AM Eastern

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