Powell: Don't Look for FCC to Do Any Retrans Game-Changing


Don't look for any game-changing decisions on retrans out of this Federal Communications Commission, says National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Michael Powell.

Powell was answering audience questions after a Paley Center luncheon conversation Tuesday, during which he weighed in on the prospects for FCC action. A number of cable operators have been pushing the commission to step into retrans disputes to mandate carriage or arbitration, but the FCC has taken no action.

Powell was hardly surprised. Asked how much action he expected from the government on retrans given that cable operator push, he said that when FCC chairmen leave office, they hand their successor a list of things "to stay the hell out of." Retrans, he said, would be one of those.

Powell suggested it was a no-win issue for regulators because the FCC does not have a lot of jurisdictional authority, so that if the commission makes the public think it can solve it when it can't, it has to answer for not doing so. He pointed out that neither he nor his predecessors Bill Kennard or Reed Hundt had tackled the issue, and he did not expect current chairman Julius Genachowski to break with that tradition.

Powell suggested the exception would be if it got new direction from Congress as part of a more comprehensive rewrite of TV regulation. If next year the 1992 Cable Act is revisited, he said, then everything is on the table, including retrans/must carry, program access and carriage, and compulsory license.

Powell was asked what concessions he thought might have to be made to get the Verizon-SpectrumCo. deal approved. He said he did not know, but was willing to opine as an antitrust attorney--formerly with the Justice Department--that he didn't see anything controversial in the spectrum exchange from companies who don't want to use it--cable ops Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox, and Bright House--and a willing buyer--Verizon--who were not direct competitors. He said the associated marketing agreements were the more "questionable" element. But he also said the theories against those were "challenging," though he conceded the government was looking "very hard" at them.

Powell was not shy about gauging the current state of navigation of programming, at least through traditional means. The remote control "truly sucks," he said, as does the current interface. He opined that kids have been taught a new language of navigation that is all about expectation. If there is no back button, or forward, or URL window, "you've lost them."

He suggested one, short-term, solution for finding them again was already in many viewers hands, including his: a tablet or pad.

All major companies are allowing guides to be put on an iPad or other device, he said, speaking from experience. He has downloaded Cox's "really cool" app for his iPad, which he uses instead of the sucky alternatives.

But he called that solution a patch. Long-term, he pointed to Comcast's new X1 platform, where it is replacing set-top guides with one that resides on a server in Denver and has that slick, easily searchable feel and can be changed and pushed out from a central location.

On a related note, Powell said he welcomed Apple TV. "As a cable guy I wish they would come," he said. That is because he saw it as the potential wedding of Apples "genius" with innovative navigation devices and cable's content and still-paying subs. He said he personally did not think Apple would be getting into the distribution side

Powell, who is a TV-phile as well as technophile, said that he thought television was just about the greastest thing in the history of mankind, offering artists undreamed of palettes as well as the time and investment to produce great shows. He cited Weeds, The Wire, The Sopranos and Mad Men, pointing out that cable was "running off" with "all kids of artistic recognition.