Cable Operators Applaud FCC Retrans Move

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Cable operators generally had nice things to say about the Federal Communications Commission's retrans reform proposal, even if it did not grant them the arbitration and standstill-agreement help many had been seeking.

"The FCC's Notice Of Proposed Rulemaking is an important first step for consumers, because it recognizes that consumers are the ones who are harmed when programming is pulled - or threatened to be pulled - from cable systems," said Cablevision COO Tom Rutledge in a statement. "The FCC has signaled its plans to examine certain broadcaster practices in retransmission consent negotiations - including the impacts of most favored nation agreements and exactly what it means for a broadcaster to negotiate in ‘good faith.' "

But Cablevision has its own wish list that it can be expected to push in comments on the FCC's just-launched notice of proposed rulemaking.

Cablevision wants the FCC to prevent the bundling of broadcast station and cable channel negotiations, make retrans fees public -- FCC commissioner Michael Copps agrees -- and prevent price "discrimination" between cable and satellite providers based on their size.

If the FCC did that, said Rutledge, there would largely be no need for the binding arbitration that Cablevision and others had pushed the FCC to mandate for impasses.

The commission did at least raise the issuing of unbundling, saying in the notice that "several commenters have suggested that the Commission should address the ability of broadcasters to condition retransmission consent on the purchase of other programming services, such as the programming of affiliated non-broadcast networks," thought it did not propose untying those bundles.

Time Warner Cable government relations exec Gail MacKinnon said it was a good day for cable operators and their customers. While she conceded that they did not get all they wanted, she pointed out that the FCC left open at least the possibility that commenters could change their mind -- it was framed as a tentative conclusion, though FCC chairman Julius Genachowski seemed pretty sure Thursday that the agency did not have the authority to mandate carriage or impose arbitration.

The American Cable Association said that it would have preferred an extreme makeover, FCC style, but like other cable operators, was buoyed by the FCC action.

"ACA commends the FCC for agreeing that the time has come to give careful consideration to new TV station carriage rules to ensure they reflect the market as it exists today and that consumers get to realize the benefits of real choice and robust competition," said ACA president Matt Polka.

"Score one for the viewers," was the response of the American Television Alliance, whose petition for retrans reform the FCC was responding to. "The FCC's approval of a new rulemaking on retransmission consent is a big win for all who have demanded reform," the group said, "including viewers who have been forced to endure more and more broadcaster blackouts and blackout threats. The Commission is clearly acknowledging that the current system is broken and that early 1990s rules must be updated. The NPRM is a good start toward the goals of balancing the scales and protecting viewers." ATVA members include ACA and Cablevision.

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