Genachowski: May Be Time to Update Retrans Rules to Limit Blackouts

But Chairman also Says FCC's Authority is Limited and Senate May Have to Lead Way

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski told a Senate panel on Tuesday that the commission may have to take action on retrans to reduce the potential for blackouts, but then suggested it would need help from Congress.

That came in one exchange during a marathon oversight hearing (two and a half hours) in the Senate Commerce Committee that ranged far and wide, though never into the area of media violence despite its invocation twice by chairman Jay Rockefeller (D- W. Va.).

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) brought up the issue of sports blackouts and his request to the commission that it look into lifting its 40-year-old blackout rules. He said they were "deeply troubling," particularly when his constituents' favorite teams are involved.

He asked the status of that issue, which he said was "profoundly important," not only to people in Connecticut but across the nation.

Genachowski did not address it specifically, instead steering the question toward retransmission-consent blackouts, which also implicates sports particularly during football season.

"An area where [blackouts] come up to often is in the retransmission consent area," he said. "It may be time to update those provisions to reduce the chances of those blackouts during retransmission-consent negotiation."

He did not commit to proceed to a rulemaking proceeding -- the FCC has an open notice of proposed rulemaking, which has been open for a couple of years. "Our authority under the existing statute is limited. This may be an area where we need to work with the committee."

Cable operators and others who have been pushing for retrans reforms were quick to jump on the hearing exchange as a good sign. The American Television Alliance released a statement not long after proclaiming: "There clearly is a critical mass of bipartisan leaders who have concerns about outdated video regulations. The American Television Alliance applauds these leaders and urges action by Congress and the FCC to fix these regulations so they are more in line with the significant changes that have occurred in the video marketplace in the last 21 years."