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Editorial: Tornado Watch

Video regulation was getting a lot of attention on Capitol Hill last week, but major reform is no slam dunk.

Legislators are in agreement that the regs are outdated. But whether that means deregulating, applying new rules to new services, or some mixture remains the challenge for anyone looking for a Telecom Act rewrite.

As expected, the renewal of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA) has become the vehicle of choice for raising retransmission consent reform issues.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) said last week that she is working on a retrans reform draft bill, one that would actually go a long way toward blunting some of the leverage broadcasters have gained through having some of the most popular video content around. But the congresswoman said the bill was meant to be a series of suggestions to provoke a robust debate—not that there wasn’t going to be one anyway.

In fact, “debate” may be too genteel a word. Broadcast and cable operators took off the gloves and traded rhetorical blows—as well as print ads— in Washington newspapers, taking aim at each other.

The fight isn’t pretty, but it isn’t unexpected. These are large companies with huge financial interests, facing seismic changes in a marketplace governed, or in some cases not governed, by legacy regs that were drafted at a time when cellphones were the size of bricks. It will be interesting to see how the fight plays out both in D.C. and beyond.

We have some advice for both sides. Try to keep the messaging consistent both on Wall Street and in Washington, and don’t forget to keep consumers in the conversation. If there is one takeaway from the FCC and Congress on retrans, it’s that they want to see a clear demonstration that consumers’ welfare, not just bottom lines and eventual deals, are part of the big-money equation.

One concern that exhibited itself last week during the Hill hearings was that if broadcasting is a vital link to emergency warnings and news about hurricanes, tornadoes and the like, blackouts suggest broadcasters are OK with their viewers losing access to that critical info in the interests of striking new business deals. They’re not.

The broadcaster response should have immediately been that while blackouts do serve the business purpose of setting a deadline that often forces negotiation, public safety trumps any of those business considerations.

So, we recommend that broadcasters make that point clear to Capitol Hill ASAP, perhaps pointing to the much-invoked-in-Washington CBS-Time Warner Cable blackout, during which CBS and Time Warner agreed to a truce long enough to air a couple of high-profile candidate debates.

Neither side has a corner on consumer- friendliness, but both should not only invoke consumers in their arguments, but also mean it when they say the people who actually pay the bills for their services are important to them.