Cox Enterprises, which has both major TV station and cable MSO holdings, says the FCC needs to consider adopting a last-ditch, fail-safe, when-all-else-fails system to prevent the kind of retrans stalemates that result in cable subscribers losing wired access to TV stations.
The comments came May 19 on a petition by cable operators, including Cox, for retrans reforms. While more than a dozen MSOs signed on to the petition, many have also filed separately, to finesse or expand their positions.
The petition recommended outside arbitration, standstill agreements to keep signals on the air, and at least exploring whether TV station retrans deals should be forcibly de-coupled from co-owned cable channel carriage.
In its filing, Cox made it clear that its support for FCC intervention was limited to cases where both sides, bargaining in good faith, can't reach a deal and their viewers "find themselves in the middle of pitched public relations battles that do nothing but confuse or anger them and poison the negotiating environment."
That's because the 11th-hour impasses result in each side disparaging the other as they try to explain the impasse. "Television viewers are ill-served by public business negotiations that leave them confused, used as pawns in disputes between communications companies, then deprived of the signals of local broadcasters that the commission has licensed to serve them," said Cox, sounding as much like a consolidation critic as a major media company. "Cox thus encourages the commission to explore the creation of a well-defined, government-sanctioned fair path to resolution that parties negotiating in good faith could use when they simply cannot find common ground."
Cox also took aim at the major networks' avowed interest in getting a cut of their affiliates' retrans bucks, and even their participation in their own stations' negotiations when they involve linking on-air and online content.
"In particular, the commission should consider the effects on consumers and the marketplace of the television networks' practices of: (1) seeking to tie carriage of affiliated nonbroadcast programming to broadcast station retransmission consent for network-owned and operated broadcast stations; and (2) seeking to control and reap the financial benefits of retransmission consent agreements between their non-owned and operated broadcast affiliates," said Cox.
If the commission concludes such practices are thwarting Congress' intent or hurting consumers, the FCC should "consider" appropriate reforms. As befitting a company with one foot in both worlds, Cox was careful to frame its comments as things to consider and collect comments on. But it also said the FCC should adopt reforms stemming from all that fact finding and contemplation, and that its response should come in the form or a rulemaking, which is the next step after an inquiry and toward actual rule changes.