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Coalition Fights to Keep TV Viewers Plugged In During Retrans Negotiations

So the news is out that a 31 member coalition, consisting of consumer groups, cable operators, satellite providers, telcos, and independent programmers, has gotten together to challenge those situations when broadcast networks have held cable systems in a headlock during negotiations for carriage of their channels, meanwhile ignoring the interests of innocent TV viewers. Boy could my friends in Arlington have benefited from something like the American Television Alliance (ATVA) back in 2007 when they faced losing their ABC channels as Cox was deadlocked with that broadcast network during a retransmission consent battle.

Those were tense times.

According to a recent press release,

Alarmed by broadcasters’ increasing use of showdown tactics and brinksmanship that cause disruption, uncertainty and even television blackouts, an unprecedented coalition of consumer groups, cable operators, satellite providers, telcos, and independent programmers have formed the American Television Alliance (ATVA) to give voice to consumers’ interests.  The mission of the new coalition, which officially launched today, is to ensure consumers are not harmed – or their favorite shows held hostage – in negotiations for carriage of broadcast programming.

The law that enabled broadcasters to withhold consent in the first place is 20 years old and was created in a different era when there weren’t as many options for viewing video content. Back then the FCC was eager to make sure people did not lose their broadcast signals since Cable was the only ticket in town.  As it is currently, broadcasters can cut off their television signals and shows from video service providers and consumers if they do not receive the compensation they demand. That is just not kosher.

I agree. It’s time to shake things up and stop making it easy for broadcasters to cut TV viewers off.

At a minimum, as Public Knowledge president Gigi Sohn said in the release, the FCC should consider requiring interim carriage of over-the-air stations should a retransmission consent agreement expire while the parties are still negotiating.

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4 comments

  • Retransmission consent is considered an extension of ‘must carry’ rules. The rationale behind retransmission consent is cable operators are monopolies that can easily leverage a local full-power station’s programming, and thereby usurp said broadcaster’s ability to earn revenue.

    I realize *networks*, like Disney and Fox, have figured out how to use their full-power stations and affiliates’ retrans agreements to full advantage, but a lot of LPTVs and independent broadcasters — whose programs often serve community interests — also benefit from the retrans rules. From a consumer’s perspective, retrans agreements function as a pragmatic check on a cable operator’s power.

  • Damion White

    Perhaps abolishing the need for retransmission consent is not the best answer, but I do agree that there needs to be some recourse with regards to consumers not getting what they pay for. I do not like to think that networks can pull their programming – or take their ball and go home – because they get into a tiff with a cable company. If it were up to me these retransmission consent agreements would need to be complete prior to a network allowing a cable company to transmit its signal. Any re-negotiations would have to take place prior to the expiration of the original consent given and within enough time that consumers could be notified of the outcome in the event that available programming may change.

  • Thanks for your contribution, William. I hear you, but I think the original purpose for the retransmission consent rules about checking cable’s power is not current. The rules were created during a period of time when there were no other options for video content. As you acknowledge, the broadcasters have abused the privilege they once had to force negotiations and have turned retrans negotiations into something not originally intended. If you think about it, at the end of the day, who is harmed by endless hold outs? Is it not the consumers?

    @Damion, that is a workable solution.

  • It’s interesting that you believe today’s market conditions render obsolete the regulations on pay television services, Jeneba, because the U.S. Supreme Court upheld them as recently as 1998. I ask what exactly has changed in 12 years? It can’t be that DBS and telecoms providing pay television services represent actual competition, for cable MSOs still dominate the pay TV market. Besides, DBS and telecom pay TV services are obliged to follow similar regulations.

    Next, modern TVs are equipped so that we can switch between antenna feeds at the push of a button. Since no pay TV service is required to carry local OTA broadcasters that opt for retransmission consent, the consumers’ access to those stations is intact and *100% free*. Most consumers don’t require pay TV services to receive their local broadcast stations.

    I don’t agree, “…broadcasters have abused the privilege…”, because I didn’t write that. Major TV networks have figured out how to employ regulations to their advantage. Still, many LPTV and independent stations benefit from the retransmission rules that might otherwise be denied cable carriage. Ending or relaxing retransmission consent would not only endanger full-power OTAs, but the community broadcasters many of them bundle with the main channels. That scenario is most certainly not in the public’s interest. If the purpose is to neutralize or limit networks like NBCU from exploiting retransmission consent, then amending the ownership rules would be far more effective than creating exemptions that work to the cable operator’s advantage. You wouldn’t work without a contract either.

    There’s another side to this issue that hasn’t been touched upon here, and that’s the matter of copyrights. I think all would agree market conditions haven’t changed to a degree whereby 1 party could use content belonging to a 2nd party without the latter’s permission and (perhaps) compensation.

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