Broadcasters Seek Consumer Group Help In Retrans Fight

Broadcasters are hoping to enlist consumer groups in battling cable operators over what broadcaster group is calling abusive pay TV practices. At least one, Public Knowledge, signaled it would be happy to work with the group on the issue of MVPD billing practices.

TVfreedom was launched to push back on the retrans issue, given that cable and satellite operators have their own group, the American Television Alliance (ATVA), pushing for retrans reforms and branding the system a thumb on the scale for broadcasters.

Each side blames the other for rising cable prices, though cable operators also point out there has been a rise in services and channels along with the price increases.

In a letter to eight public interest groups, including at least one, Public Knowledge, which is actually a member of ATVA, TVFreedom called on them to "join the organization in developing an open and collaborative process that will place a public spotlight on the abusive billing and business practices being undertaken by the cable and satellite TV industry that are harming consumers."

The groups, in addition to Public Knowledge, are Free Press, Consumers Union, Consumer Action, Consumer Federation of America, New America Foundation, National Consumer League and Public Citizen.

The letter cites a lack of competition and consumer choice in the U.S. video marketplace as justifying a hard look at cable's alleged billing practices including hidden fees, excessive equipment rentals, early termination fees and overbilling.

According to TVFreedom spokesman Rob Kenny, Consumer Union said it had received and was reviewing the request and the National Consumer League said it would follow up, and Public Knowledge said it was willing to talk about the issue.

Public Knowledge senior staff attorney John Bergmayer confirmed the group was open to discussing it. He said while Public Knowledge supports ATVA on the retrans reform issue, it has plenty of issues with some cable practices, billing among them. "Our eyes are wide open about what is going on," he said, "but if we can get positive action on discrete issues without signing up for the whole agenda," which he says is the case with ATVA as well, "we would be happy to work with [TVFreedom] on this issue."

“This letter from broadcasters is nothing more than a smokescreen to distract from skyrocketing retransmission consent fees and record number of TV blackouts. We’re confident consumer groups will continue to join us in wanting to put an end to blackouts and high fees,” said ATVA spokesman Brian Frederick.

"They’re calling for transparency, but they’ve resisted every effort to make the price of broadcast channels more transparent. They don’t want consumers to know fast rates are rising for broadcast TV stations or that they’re forced to pay for these stations by the government or that they tie carriage of cable networks to local TV stations.

“If they really cared about the price of cable bills, the NAB would talk to the four biggest TV networks, who control half of the top 50 most expensive cable networks.”

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.