FCC Seeks Comment On Time Warner Et Al Retrans Petition

It didn't take the FCC long, but as expected, the commission Friday said it was officially seeking comment on a petition by cable and satellite operators that it revamp the retransmission consent regime, according to a copy of the public notice.

Last week, a an eclectic group led by Time Warner and including the American Cable Association, DISH, DirecTV and Public Knowledge, asked the commission to "fix" the retransmission consent system by instituting arbitration for impasses, preventing TV stations from pulling their signals during dispute resolution, and untying retrans deals from those for co-owned cable nets.

The FCC has set an April 19 deadline for comments, with reply comments due May 4.

The request by Time Warner and others came in the wake of a high-profile retrans impasse between Time Warner Cable and Fox last December, and the more recent stand-off between Cablevision and Disney-owned WABC.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski signaled at a Hill hearing on the Comcast/NBCU deal that the commission was going to take a look at the retrans regime in light of complaints that the marketplace had outstripped it.\

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who has pushed the FCC to take another look at retrans, and said Congress should do the same, was quick to praise the effort. In fact a prepared statement was already in journalist's inboxes five minutes after the FCC e-mail announcing the public notice.

"Allowing for comments on this petition for rulemaking will further educate both the Commission and Congress on the practical alternatives to resolving these disputes, and that discussion and debate is good for everyone," he said. "I look forward to engaging with the FCC to ensure the best interest of the public is protected as these companies hash out their private carriage negotiations."

Kerry was D.C.'s most vocal spectator at the recent retrans fights, sending letters to industry participants and the FCC saying that what he called the game of retrans chicken must come to an end.

He initially put the onus on broadcasters, saying they should not be able to pull signals, even when contracts have expired without a new deal. But he later said his aim was not to pick sides.

"We look forward to a dialogue about reforming the outdated retransmission consent regime and urge the FCC to follow-on quickly with a rulemaking proceeding to fix this broken system," said Time Warner Executive VP Gail MacKinnon in response to the FCC public notice."

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.