Washington -- Concerned that big programmers might be squeezing small cable companies, Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) promised to examine whether the major networks are bargaining fairly or forcing unwanted programming on distributors that lack market power to resist.
"When we get down to hearings, we'll have a hearing on retransmission consent,” Stevens said in a speech here Monday at the American Cable Association’s annual summit.
Stevens said he is concerned that the corporate parents of ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox are pushing the little cable companies around, including through the bundling of broadcast and cable network programming.
"Well, that's been the allegation at two or three of the meetings I've been to. So I think we ought to bring it out in the air and let's see what those people that are making these requests for purchasing more than the smaller [systems] want -- let's see what their justification is,” Stevens told reporters later.
The ACA, a consortium of small cable companies, has complained for years that the “Big Four” link access to their must-have broadcast signals to the distribution of their suite of cable networks in a bundling arrangement that small cable says drives up cable rates and exposes viewers to indecent content.
The Walt Disney Co. has rebutted those claims in part by saying that its 10 owned-and-operated ABC affiliates are sold a la carte for cash and that its ESPN suite isn’t bundled in a take-it-or-leave-it fashion.
Viacom Inc., owner of CBS, has told the Federal Communications Commission that tying arrangements are common and the process is working well.
When he helped to enact retransmission consent in 1992, Stevens said the idea was to strengthen free, over-the-air broadcasting without placing inordinate burdens on cable.
“I want to try to make it so no one with control over programs can leverage you to where you have to take some things you do not want in order to get the things you want. That's not a la carte, but that’s trying to eliminate that pressure,” Stevens said in comments that pleased the ACA crowd.
Some big cable companies, including Time Warner Cable, have argued that retransmission consent is broken, pointing out that the right to obtain compensation for their TV stations has caused the major networks to emphasize investment in cable networks while the intent of Congress was to bolster free TV.
“We were trying to help the over-the-air broadcasters. We never intended to arm the owners of the content with the ability to then find a way around that,” Stevens said. "It doesn't sound right. It doesn't fit what we wanted to do."