Broadcasters Celebrate Hill Choice To Pull Local Choice

The National Association of Broadcasters Wednesday was celebrating the news that the "Local Choice" proposal had been pulled from a Senate Commerce Committee version of must-pass satellite legislation. 

The plan would have removed the requirement that cable operators carry all TV stations, instead letting subs choose whether they wanted to get the stations that were charging for their signal. Stations could still have opted for mandatory carriage on MVPDS, but without compensation.

It was a victory for broadcasters, although the bill still contains a number of retrans reforms broadcasters don't want in a final bill, which must pass by year's end or the blanket license sunsets that allows satellite operators to import distant network signals, in addition to a provision that authorizes the FCC to enforce good faith retrans negotiations.

"NAB is thankful for the consideration Senate Commerce Committee members gave the 'Local Choice' proposal and for recognizing the unintended negative consequences this measure would have had on localism, broadcasters and our millions of viewers," said NAB President Gordon Smith.

Actually a committee spokesperson said Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) and ranking member John Thune (R-S.D.) still back the plan, but said they needed to focus on passage of the bill next week, and 'Local Choice" would have to wait for a fuller vetting. But its decoupling from must-pass legislation is a big win, if only a partial one, for Smith, NAB, and the coalition that was fighting its inclusion in the bill.

"We thank the nearly 130,000 viewers and listeners across America who have called and e-mailed Congress on the importance of preserving free and local television," said Smith. "We remain seriously concerned with a number of provisions remaining in the Commerce Committee bill, and we look forward to working with committee members as STAVRA moves through the legislative process to ensure our viewers' continued access to lifeline local television."

Those include barring joint retransmission consent negotiations by independently owned TV stations, and not just in the same market; not allowing retrans agreements to limit the ability of cable or satellite ops to carry significantly viewed out-of-market stations; in the case of retrans blackouts, allows the FCC to seek info from MVPDs and broadcasters about whether they committed per se violations of good faith negotiations; and directs the FCC to conduct a rulemaking on whether certain practices, like blocking online video content, are a violation of good faith and how best to update the totality of circumstances test to encourage both broadcasters and MVPDs to reach a retrans agreement.

"We are encouraged by the Senate Commerce Committee's decision to eliminate the 'Local Choice' components from its draft STAVRA legislation," said Spokesman Robert Kenny. "In the interest of the millions of low-income households, seniors and underserved populations that rely on paid television services for their local news and programming, severe weather updates and emergency information, we will continue to fight to preserve the lifeline basic service tier provision in any legislation that moves forward this year."

The American Cable Association, a member of the American Television Alliance that backed Local Choice, said it would be working hard to make sure the remaining retrans provisions stay in the bill.

“Make no mistake about it: Local Choice is a powerful, bipartisan idea rooted in free-market principles that would create a level playing field and discipline the market in ways that benefit the public," said Polka. "This is a concept whose time will come. In the next Congress, ACA stands ready to work with lawmakers on enacting this important reform so necessary to protect consumers from TV station-initiated blackouts on less than a moment’s notice.  One thing is for sure: ACA will be there every step of the way until real ‘TV freedom’is the law of the land."

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.