News

Get In Retrans Game, FCC

11/29/2010 12:01 AM Eastern

Last month’s dispute between
Fox Networks Group and
Cablevision Systems over retransmission
rights represents a
grand opportunity for the
Federal Communications
Commission. It should feel
free to step in and remedy a
situation in which no one,
least of all consumers, is
happy.

Certainly Cablevision subscribers
in the New York and
Philadelphia areas were decidedly
unhappy to miss out
on the World Series, National Football
League games and their favorite
shows as the two-week episode
dragged on amid the claims and
counter-claims of a major national
broadcast/cable/entertainment
giant in Fox, and a cable operator/
programmer in Cablevision.

By the end, no one cared who was
right. They just wanted it settled.
The FCC kept a decidedly low profile throughout this dispute, despite
repeated pleas by members of Congress
and local elected officials from
both parties that the fight had to be
finished, by arbitration if necessary.
The agency deferred to Congress, although
it was clear that Congress
had no opportunity to play a meaningful
role.

Now that passions have cooled
down, and before the next of those
cable-broadcaster disputes heats
up, we can assess exactly what the
FCC can and can’t do. The good
news for consumers, and for all
those elected officials and policymakers
who wanted their constituents
to see their sports teams play,
is that the commission has all the
tools it needs in hand right now.

First, there’s no question of FCC
authority over broadcasters. That
has long been established, since the
first days of the Communications
Act. Second, there is the FCC’s ability
to manage the retransmissionconsent
process. The
good news here also is
that the FCC needs
nothing from Congress
because Congress already
gave the commission
all the authority it
needs — almost 20 years
ago. Congress conferred
broad authority in the
1992 Cable Act, giving
the FCC power “to establish
regulations to govern the exercise
by television broadcast stations
of the right to grant retransmission
consent.”

Moreover, Congress has required
the FCC to consider the impact of
retransmission-consent fees on
basic-cable rates to ensure that they
remain reasonable. There’s little
doubt what the impact will be on cable
rates when major broadcast stations
are each seeking $1 or more per
subscriber each month to retransmit
signals that are available over the air
(and online) for free.

There are some people, like Fox executives,
who complain that the FCC
shouldn’t interfere in the “free-market”
retransmission negotiations.
Not to worry. Retransmission consent
is an artificial right created by
the government, and it has never involved
free-market negotiations for
carriage.

This is an issue on which all
elected officials can agree. Consumers
shouldn’t be caught in the
middle again. Luckily, the FCC can
make sure that doesn’t happen.


Gigi Sohn is president and co-founder
of Public Knowledge, a Washington,
D.C.-based nonprofit public-interest
group.
September