ACA Sees Hopeful Signs On Retrans Remake

ACA President Matt Polka gave FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski several shout-outs Tuesday for the chairman's retrans comments at the National Association of Broadcasters suggesting there could be problems with the retransmission consent system.

"Reforming" a system referred to more than once at Tuesday's Washington policy fly-in as "extortion" is one of a couple of key priorities for the group, which represents small and mid-sized operators who say they are often required to pay bigger fees for being smaller.

He called a "very helpful signal" the chairman's point that "when you start looking at rates the way they are impacted by retransmission consent, how can you keep calling it free TV."

Polka said there was no guarantee of the outcome, but that at least the commission was willing to look at the issue.

The FCC has opened an inquiry into retransmission consent and whether it needs any fixing.

That was prompted in part by some high-profile retrans fights that appeared to threaten access to college football bowl games and the Oscars.

But smaller operators at the fly-in said that they have sometimes lost access to TV station signals for months at a time, but that given the size of the systems--a few thousand subs--it just doesn't seem to get the attention from Washington.

"We have had broadcasters pull major market, major network signals in eight of our DMA's over the last five years. It never reached Congress or the FCC," said Tom Might, ACA board member and president of Cable One. Back in 2005, he said, "in one market with an LMA, we had an NBC and Fox off for 12 months," .

But they saw hope for change from this FCC. "Without too much hyperbole, this is the first time in 17 years that we have had a two-way conversation in Washington on retrans," said Might. We have had a voice, said Abdoullah, "but it has been a whisper."

"We have been the canaries in the coal mine, says Might. "It was suffering, but now it is finally being heard [now that] the bigger birds are singing."

Asked what outcome ACA was seeking, ACA Chairman Steve Friedman of Wave Broadband said a free market, which does not necessarily mean one free of FCC input. As part of a petition to the FCC from large and small operators alike, ACA has asked the FCC to prevent the stations from pulling signals during impasses, for a better dispute resolution system, and unbundling TV station signal negotiations from co-owned cable nets. But ACA sees that as simply leveling a playing field that favors broadcasters. Friedman cited network nonduplication and syndicated exclusivity among those regulatory favors to broadcasters. While Polka said one concern is whether the FCC will have the time to get to retrans given its busy agenda, he took hope from a recent statement by Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii).

Polka pointed out that Inouye, who helped write the retrans rules in the 1992 Cable Act has said it is time to revisit them. "That is an important signal. I think that Chairman Genachowski hears that, and knows the background, realizes that this is something I've got to do."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.