Washington—The cable industry thinks broadcasters’ so-called quiet period is a lot of noise.
Last Tuesday, the National Association of Broadcasters announced that many of its TV-station members have agreed not to pull their signals from cable systems from Feb. 4, 2009 to March 4, 2009 in an effort to ensure a smooth digital TV transition in mid February.
Cable’s main trade associations immediately dumped on NAB’s “quiet period” plan, mainly because it wouldn’t give cable systems the right to restore carriage of TV stations that were withholding their signals as Feb. 4 arrived.
All full-power TV stations are to convert to digital transmission on Feb. 17, 2009. Meanwhile, thousands of carriage contracts between cable operators and TV stations are due to expire on Dec. 31, 2008, raising concerns that carriage disputes that ran past Feb. 3 would not come to a halt under NAB’s quiet period.
For that reason alone, both the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and the American Cable Association want the quiet period to start on or before Jan. 1.
“Any voluntary quiet period that does not begin before the agreements actually expire — or which is too brief to preclude potentially confusing messages about broadcast carriage during the time of the actual DTV transition — represents the illusion of a commitment and does not serve the consumer,” said National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow in a statement.
The ACA, which represents small cable operators, thinks its members are especially vulnerable to TV stations that plan to use consumer uncertainty about the DTV transition to extract better cable carriage terms.
“While we appreciate those NAB members’ willingness to embrace a retransmission-consent quiet period, a start date of Feb. 4, 2009, is simply too late and will not go far enough to protect consumers, whose signals could be pulled by broadcasters before Feb. 4,” ACA president Matt Polka said in a statement.
The NAB vetted its quiet period dates last Monday on a conference call with Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin, who has floated two quiet period schedules of his own.
Jack Sander, senior adviser to Belo Corp. and joint board chairman of the NAB, said he expected criticism from some pay TV distributors.
“We’re focused on the DTV transition. They’re focused on retransmission consent. Those are two very different sets of business issues,” Sander said.
Sander also argues that NAB’s quiet period was effectively eight weeks long because the Nielsen Co. will be conducting nationwide TV audience ratings from March 5 to April 1. Under FCC rules, cable operators may not drop TV stations during the ratings or “sweeps” period.
NAB, Sander said, wasn’t capable of requiring its TV station members to postpone any of their cable carriage disputes until early April.
“We cannot legislate that,” he said. “That’s a business decision between the cable company or satellite provider and the local broadcaster.”
Martin has recommended two quiet period options, from either Jan. 15, 2009 to Feb. 28, 2009, or Dec. 15, 2008 to Feb. 28, 2009.
Sander — who participated in the conference call with Martin without NAB president David Rehr also on the line — said he didn’t sense any resistance from the nation’s top media regulator.
“I don’t want to speak on his behalf, but [Martin] seemed fine with it,” Sander said. “He said his dates had just been kind of floating around in his mind. There was nothing magic about his dates.”
An FCC spokeswoman said Martin supports a quite period but not necessarily NAB’s dates.
“He is open to options, but he has not made a decision on this one,” she said.
ACA members have proposed starting the quiet period from the day of FCC approval (presumably before Jan. 1, 2009) until May 31, 2009.
On Oct. 1, TV stations have to elect whether to demand cable carriage or begin a negotiation called retransmission consent in which TV stations seek cash or other forms of compensation. The triennial election was created by the 1992 Cable Act.
Cable operators may not carry TV stations after Dec. 31 without extensions from the stations with which they are bogged down in carriage talks.
Deadline extensions to prevent signal interruption have not been uncommon in the past. But pressure on cable operators to ink deals starts to rise as the National Football League’s hugely popular Super Bowl championship game nears.
The 2009 Super Bowl is scheduled to be played on Feb. 1 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.
Small cable operators are particularly concerned about losing access to local TV signals in January and the possibility that those disputes could frustrate and confuse consumers around the time of the DTV transition six weeks later.
“Many [TV carriage] contracts are coming up at the end of the year,” Polka said. “I know [FCC] commissioner [Jonathan] Adelstein has supported the Dec. 15 date, for the very reason the contracts would be expiring at the end of the year. This would prevent any kind of ability of broadcasters to leverage that to the detriment of our members and certainly their customers.”
NAB’s quiet period commitment does not cover CBS Corp. or News Corp. because those companies quit the NAB years ago over lobbying strategy related to FCC regulation of TV-station ownership.
“While we support a quiet period around the digital transition, we strongly believe that all affected parties should be involved and reach a consensus on the parameters before moving forward,” a News Corp. spokesperson said.
CBS officials issued a statement that said no quiet period was necessary.
“CBS has done many [retransmission-consent] deals with large and small cable operators with absolutely no disruption to the audience we share. We see nothing in our current negotiations that leads us to believe that will change, so we see no need for the kind of 'quiet period’ sought by some cable operators,” CBS said.