The FCC has voted on a final order to give cable operators more leeway when informing viewers of possible retrans blackouts.
Currently, the FCC requires an operator to provide at least 30-day notices, but the FCC pointed out that retrans negotiations often go down to the wire and it is "frequently unclear, 30 days prior to a contract’s expiration, whether a new agreement will be reached, whether there will be a short-term extension, or whether the programming at issue will be dropped."
Under the FCC's existing rules cable ops had to provide that 30-day notice before a channel comes off if that change "is within the provider's control." The problem is that most disputes wind up being resolved in that 30-day window, so the notifications wind up being for takedowns that never happen. "[W]e don't want consumers to be inundated by premature and inaccurate notices about channel changes that never come to pass," FCC chair Ajit Pai had said of the proposed change.
Before the vote at Wednesday's (Sept. 30) public meeting vote, that 30-day notice had to be given in writing to both subs and local franchise authorities (LFAs).
The FCC voted unanimously back in December to propose eliminating the requirement.
Now, per the latest in Pai's media modernization effort, cable operators 1) must only provide notice "as soon as possible," 3) that that notice can include notifications on the relevant channel(s), and 3) that cable operators don't have to provide LFA's with 30 days notice of rate or service changes, but that rate-regulated operators--there are only a handful of those still around--do have to provide such advanced notice of increases in basic service tier prices.
Not surprisingly, cable operators backed the change. But the U.S. conference of mayors had joined with LFAs to tell the FCC it doesn't have the authority to eliminate the 30-day notice requirement for potential retrans-related blackouts, and shouldn't eliminate it even if it could.
FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel approved the item, but with a word of warning.
"[T]oday we update our rules for the real world," she said. "We determine that instead of a strict 30-day notice of a dispute that could lead to a loss of programming, it is better if consumers are just notified that a blackout is likely as soon as possible."
She called that a modern approach but added a caveat. This decision speaks at length about burdens on companies, but I believe the guiding principle here should be updating our policies for the benefit of consumers. In the end, I think the changes we make here do just that. However, if they are put in practice in a way that shortchanges consumers, we will need to revisit this approach."
Also signaling he wanted consumers to be top of mind, commissioner Geoffrey Starks said: “I will be watching to make sure that the changes we adopt today will, in fact, protect consumers through notice provided ‘as soon as possible.’”
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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.