Guest Blog: There is No Freedom in 'Free' TV

Broadcasters recently launched a front group with the apparent purpose of attacking pay-TV providers and making enough noise to distract from reforming our broken retransmission consent system that victimizes the public. They named their new group TVFreedom, perhaps to misdirect from the fact that for decades they’ve actually opposed freedom of choice for TV viewers.

In a Broadcasting & Cablecolumn yesterday, TVFreedom’s director Rob Kenny wrote: “Currently, pay-TV providers are required to place broadcast networks on this basic tier, so that all subscribers – regardless of how much they pay for a particular package – will have access to their local news.”

Let’s put aside the fact that Kenny acknowledges that pay-TV providers are “required” to do something by federal fiat and focus on how his statement is inaccurate. Right now, only the cable providers are required by the government to carry local TV stations on the basic tier. The satellite providers don’t have the basic tier requirement. And guess what? The sky hasn’t fallen.

If the basic tier mandate is so critical to public safety, where is the evidence that the lack of such a mandate for the satellite companies has led to any harms?

It’s laudable that broadcasters provide lifesaving information, but it’s the very least they can do with the tens of billions of dollars worth of spectrum space that we, the American people, gifted them. And they’re certainly not the only ones providing such information – cable, telecom and wireless providers transmit such information, as well.  And often times with greater speed and in a means more accessible than broadcasters.

Emergency alerts now show up vibrating and beeping on cell phones well before local broadcasters send out such information over the airwaves (to anyone who happens to be watching TV at the time). Just yesterday, I received an alert on my cell phone warning me of a flash flood watch in D.C. and I wasn’t watching TV or listening to the radio. Had I only relied on broadcasters, I never would have known.  

The Internet also provides emergency information, as well, which is often more localized than TV or radio thanks to geolocation and weather apps. Further, the Internet is not a one-way form of communication, so citizens can rely on communicating with one another (such as via Twitter or instant messages) rather than one broadcast outlet.

So broadcasters are currently squatting on hundreds of billions of dollars worth of spectrum that they’re not using other than to provide 8% of the American public with “local” TV – if and when those users can receive a decent broadcast signal. And local television isn’t even local anymore. Only one out of two TV stations actually shows local news. Further, 50% of the money collected in retransmission consent fees goes back to New York City to pay for expensive network programming, which is the exact opposite of what retrans was supposed to do.

But back to the basic tier mandate. The broadcasters cannot – and should not be allowed by the media  – to get away with claiming that retransmission consent amounts to the free market at the same time they fight to protect the government requirement that cable and telecom providers carry certain broadcast TV channels. Nor should they be able to claim retrans is the free market when they tie carriage of the expensive cable channels they own to the local TV stations.

The basic tier is a relic of a bygone era when broadcasters were the only game in town. New technologies have disrupted this monopoly and now broadcasters are fighting to save a dying business model.  Protecting an archaic monopoly is never good public policy.  

Consumers deserve “freedom” from antiquated video laws that were written decades ago and only reflect an out-of-date, one-way system of television. The Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA) provides the perfect opportunity to update our video rules to the 21st century. It is time for Congress to act and the American public expects it to do so.

Brian Frederick, Ph.D., is spokesman for the American Television Alliance, a coalition of consumer groups, independent programmers, and pay-TV companies advocating for retrans reforms.