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Deal Takes Aim at Retrans

Georgia Republican Nathan Deal is planning to add language to national franchising legislation that takes aim at broadcasters' retransmission-consent rights.

Deal's Deputy Chief of Staff, Todd Smith, said Friday the congressman is working out the language of the provision, which would be introduced when the bill is marked up in committee in the next few weeks. Deal is a member of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, which is hammering out franchise reform language in its rewrite of the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

Deal spearheaded a letter to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin back in December suggesting that the commission should reconsider retrans as it works through the issue of family-friendly tiers and a la carte cable service.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has pushed both as a way to give consumers, particularly parents, more control over cable content as a response to activist group concerns about indecent programming.

The cable industry has countered by offering family friendly tiers voluntarily, but says unbundling its channels from service tiers will essentially unravel its business model and disadvantage smaller nets that depend on being bundled to gain carriage.

In a Dec. 12 letter, Deal, Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and six other House members wrote of their concerns that retrans deals--in which broadcasters negotiate compensation for carriage of their TV stations on cable--have helped drive the bundling of family-friendly and unfriendly channels. That's because many deals involve not cash but agreements to carry co-owned cable networks, FX for the Fox stations, for example, or MSNBC for NBC stations.

Smith was not talking details, but the new Deal provision will likely try to unbundle negotiations for TV station carriage from those co-owned cable nets that are often a part of the bargain.

Viacom, for one,  has already done that by splitting itself into two parts, with CBS now pledging to seek cash for its stations.

In an op ed submitted to B&C (below), Deal puts an even finer point on it. Opining that the tying of station carriage to cable channels has created a limited number of packages that can contain a"predetermined set of channels, ranging from family friendly cartoons to controversial gay and lesbian programs," he argues for major changes.

"By reforming the antiquated and anti-competitive retransmission consent rules," he wrote to B&C, "Congress can provide cable and satellite companies with the ability to offer innovative and new packaging options.  This will certainly be true with broadband video service providers.  Federal regulation must no longer prohibit the free market by enabling large network broadcasters to force limited choice on consumers."