CBS Affils to FCC: You Don't Have Authority To Remake Retrans

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Fresh from retransmission-consent discussions with CBS network executives at their meeting in New York last week, a half dozen CBS affiliate association executives, including the chair and vice chair, made a road trip to D.C. to make their case to top FCC staffers in person.

According to affiliate association counsel Jennifer Johnson in an ex parte notification at the Federal Communications Commission, Wayne Daugherty, executive vice president and COO of Raycom Media and chair of the association and company, told the FCC's Media Bureau chief and staffer at a May 25 meeting that the agency lacks the authority to adopt changes proposed in a petition by Time Warner and other top cable operators, satellite and telco companies. Those proposed changes include independent arbitration and preventing signals from being pulled during retrans impasses.

They argued the petition was meant to "thwart" a fair process that is working. They warned the FCC to look out for cable operators who might decide to drag their feet to make their point about a process they argue is broken and in need of fixing. The affiliate execs "noted that carriers may have an incentive as a result of the pending Petition for Rulemaking to cause an impasse with broadcasters in order to advance their call for retransmission-consent reform," the filing said.

While they were there, the affils also registered their concerns about the FCC's proposal to reclaim spectrum from broadcasters to turn over to wireless broadband. They said reduced interference protections resulting from repacking stations as a result of the reclamation would not be voluntary and "would harm the service local stations are able to provide."

Elsewhere on the retrans front, broadcasters got some help from Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.). In a letter to FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, a copy of which was obtained by Multichannel News, Gingrey said he wanted to add his voice to those arguing that the government "does not belong in the role of arbiter of free market negotiations." He said he was concerned with the potential harm of a standstill provision in concert with any government imposed arbitration. The likely result, he said, would be that more retrans negotiations "would be dragged out until the bitter end."

The FCC is collecting comments as part of an inquiry into what, if anything, need to be done about the retransmission-consent regime. That was prompted in part by high-profile impasses at the end of last year that threatened over-the-air delivery of football games and Oscar moments. Genachowski has said that the system may need updating, but it is unclear what, if any, steps the commission will take. Gingrey notes that the FCC has better things to do than to put on a striped shirt and start blowing the whistle.
"I know there are many important and timely matters before the FCC," he said. "[I]t is my belief that becoming an active referee of market negotiations across the country would only distract from you vital mission."
Though Gingrey was not explicit about those "important and timely matters," broadband is often the implied prioirity invoked by those looking to dissuade the FCC from doing things like retrans revamps or network neutrality.