Retrans Reform Fans Call FCC NPRM 'First Step'


Early reaction was generally positive to the news that the Federal Communications Commission would be issuing a rulemaking on retransmission consent, likely within the first quarter of 2011, though fans of reform were calling it a first step and suggesting more work needs to be done.

Cable operators that are members of the American Television Alliance called the NPRM "welcome news for millions of American TV viewers."

FCC Media Bureau chief Bill Lake did not say the rulemaking proposal would include the remedies ATVA was seeking, so the group took the opportunity to urge the FCC to take that next step: "We encourage the FCC to make changes that include a framework to resolve disputes and a ban on broadcaster blackouts during negotiations. We look forward to working with the FCC on the rulemaking and will continue to work with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to balance the scales and protect consumers."

Another potential remedy for retrans reformers apparently will no longer be available -- Sen. John Kerry's (D.-Mass.) proposed legislation. In light of the FCC proposal, he would no longer be introducing that bill, at least not now.

ATVA was created earlier this year by strange bedfellows, a mix of of cable operators--Cablevision, Charter, Time Warner Cable--programmers, satellite companies, telcos and even the Parents Television Council and Public Knowledge.

"We are very pleased to see the FCC begin a new look at retransmission consent," said Public Knowledge president Gigi Sohn. "These disputes between broadcasters and cable operators are becoming more frequent and increasingly bitter, and consumers are more than ever becoming innocent victims of those disputes. That's why we and others asked the FCC in March to start a rulemaking on the issues."

"The NPRM is a constructive step forward and serious review of a marketplace that has undergone significant changes and merits a fresh look," said National Cable & Telecommunications Association spokesman Brian Dietz.

"ACA applauds the Federal Communications Commission's intention to launch a rulemaking to review the broken retransmission consent regime that local TV stations have been abusing to gouge cable operators and their customers for many years, especially in small markets where ACA members are most active," said American Cable Association President Matt Polka.

ACA was one of the signatories on a Time Warner Cable-spearheaded petition to get the FCC to reform retrans rules, including mandating outside arbitration in standstill agreements.

"Procedural reforms designed to supply consumers with timely information and protect them from broadcasters' ‘blackmail or blackout' stratagems are a solid first step," said Polka. "As FCC Media Bureau Chief William Lake outlined in his speech today at the Media Institute. In his remarks, Chief Lake said the rulemaking would be broad in scope, and ACA commends him for wanting the FCC's review to be as comprehensive as possible."

"This is a good step toward resolving retransmission disputes, but the FCC will need to do more than just help cable companies and broadcasters," said Corie Wright, policy counsel for Free Press. "A definition of good-faith bargaining does little to stop companies from threatening to pull channels from subscribers, and it does less to help consumers who have lost channels they paid for during a blackout."

Lake said in a speech at the Media Institute Wednesday that the FCC would open a broad notice, but with an emphasis on better defining good faith bargaining and better informing consumers about retrans impasses. The FCC's focus is on reducing the impact and instances of signal cut-offs. Lake referred to an old African proverb to make his point, saying that when elephants fight, it's the grass that gets trampled.

Wright used the retrans rulemaking announcement to press for making cable per-channel prices public and for a la carte. "Both sides of this market are broken, and the only lasting fix will be empowering consumers with information about the prices and terms for carriage of each and every channel in their subscription, as well as giving them the right to opt out of paying for any unwanted channels," he said. "In the event of signals being pulled, consumers certainly should not have to continue to pay for channels that they no longer receive."