Skip to main content

Battle Royale Brews Over Retrans Consent

WASHINGTON — Broadcasters in a pitched battle with multichannel video providers over retransmission fees came out swinging last week, with a new coalition and an ad campaign that takes aim at cable operators.

They’re also looking to block a flurry of recent punches from the other side, including a push to limit how TV stations can program their multicast signals.

While the National Association of Broadcasters has been taking the lead on the issue, TVFreedom.org was launched last week. The coalition combines the NAB with the networks’ affiliate associations, the Television Bureau of Advertising and others.

That move comes only a few weeks after the National Cable & Telecommunications Association signaled that it would take a more prominent role in the tussle over retransmission consent, at the urging of its board. It’s a shift from years of politically driven silence on the part of the NCTA, whose operator and programmer members have interests on both sides of the issue.

With the NCTA now in the fray, multichannel-TV providers now pack the one-two punch of the cable association and the American Television Alliance (ATVA), a coalition of Time Warner Cable, Charter Communications, the American Cable Association and satellite-TV providers that has been taking the lead on retransmission reforms.

Those cable and satellite firms have been making some noise recently, buoyed by the FCC’s move to disallow a shared-service arrangement in the Gannett-Belo merger.

The ATVA has long argued that shared service and sales agreements are a violation in spirit, if not in law, of the FCC’s local-ownership limits, and allow TV stations undue retransmission leverage by coordinating retransmission negotiations among such stations.

The FCC under chairman Tom Wheeler has made it clear it will scrutinize such deals on an individual basis — at least when they are part of transactions under review — and disallow them if they are deemed to not be in the public interest. Cable operators make that argument, claiming shared-services deals drive up the price of pay TV service to consumers.

The FCC is also expected to restrict TV joint-service agreements, as it already does with radio, as part of its review of media-ownership rules.

Only days before the TVFreedom.org coalition opened its doors, ATVA members met with FCC officials to push for a host of retransmission reforms — and that came only days after Cox paid a visit to argue that the reform docket, open since 2010, was ripe for action.

As part of their pitch to the FCC, representatives of the American Cable Association, Charter, DirecTV, Dish Network and others told FCC lawyers that they should not let TV stations that are network affiliates use their multicast channels to affiliate with a second network. Like joint-service agreements and shared-service agreements, the pay TV providers argued that allowing stations to use their multicast signals as network affiliates gives them a way to skirt rules and amass undue power.

The ATVA members have argued that the FCC has the authority to:

• Prevent coordinated retransmission negotiations;

• Keep broadcast-TV signals on cable systems during retransmission disputes, as it does with cable programming networks during program- access disputes; and

• Mandate commercial arbitration. The FCC historically has read its authority as limited by statute. But cable providers see the matter differently. “To the contrary, the congressional sponsors of the retransmission-consent provision made clear that they expected the commission to intervene in disputes to the extent necessary to safeguard the public interest and to ensure consumers’ access to broadcast programming,” the ATVA members told the lawyers.

TAKEAWAY

Rhetoric in the battle over retransmission consent stands to become even more pitched as the broadcast industry launches a coalition to push its point of view in Washington.