In the last five years, TV viewers living in 169 of our country's 212 TV markets have experienced at least one local broadcast blackout. Some markets, like New York City, Spokane and Mobile-Pensacola, have experienced five or more separate blackouts. Many of these blackouts last weeks or months with some even extending beyond a year.
Blackouts occur when the broadcast station owners and the cable, satellite or phone companies can't agree on a price for carriage of the local broadcast TV station. These "retransmission consent" disputes, as they are called, have become increasingly frequent over the last few years. The big losers in these disputes are American consumers who end up paying more or being caught in the middle and therefore, denied access to popular TV shows and sporting events via a blackout.
But there is now a simple solution to this mess and it involves giving consumers the power to make their own decisions when it comes to local broadcast television. The idea has been put forward by Senators John Rockefeller and John Thune and is called "local choice," and here's how it works. The local broadcast stations set the price for their channels. Customers can then choose whether they want to pay for each of these local channels. The pay-TV companies simply collect the money from customers and send it back to the broadcast TV stations.
The "local choice" solution thus eliminates retransmission consent disputes and blackouts once and for all because broadcast station owners and the cable, satellite and phone companies no longer have to negotiate over price. The purchase of these channels becomes a direct choice made by consumers and allows broadcasters to receive what they believe to be the fair market value of their channel. And it ensures that customers will always have access to local broadcast TV, if they are willing to pay what the broadcasters charge through their pay-TV provider. If consumers choose not to purchase these channels, they do not have to but can continue to utilize the local broadcaster's free over-the-air signal.
Local choice is a solution so simple it's hard to believe it hasn't been proposed before.
Broadcasters should be in favor of this solution. For years, they have claimed that they are not receiving as much as they should from pay-TV providers given how popular their programming is. Now they can receive whatever consumers are willing to pay for their programming - a true free market (which they claim they support). In addition, broadcasters' new group, TVFreedom, claims to want greater transparency and choice for cable and satellite customers. Local choice provides exactly those things. Finally, local choice preserves the government-sanctioned territories of local broadcasters, called DMAs. Broadcasters have claimed for years that this is the source of broadcaster localism.
Consumers win with local choice because there will be increased competition to provide the best local programming. The broadcasters will be incentivized to deliver the best content they can. Local programming thus only stands to improve with local choice. Additionally, consumers will have more control over their pay-TV bill and the channels they pay for.
At the end of the day, with local choice, a local broadcast station set its own price and consumers can decide if they want to pay that amount or watch the signal for free over-the-air. And it would level the playing field for all video providers in the marketplace so that consumers in the same market could not be discriminated against based on the neighborhood or town they live in. These companies wouldn't do anything more than collect the fees for the broadcasters.
Local choice language can easily be written into the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA) and would provide an immediate and permanent fix to the broadcast blackout epidemic that has been plaguing American consumers for the last decade.
Brian Frederick, Ph.D., is spokesman for the American Television Alliance, a coalition of consumer groups, cable, satellite, telephone companies, and independent programmers.