House Ponders Range Of Video Reg Issues

Members of the House Communications Subcommittee Wednesday echoed long-standing concerns about outdated regulation, and put new urgency into their desire to modernize it, but they continued to disagree over just how regs need to be updated/applied/scrapped.

There was even disagreement over the Title of Republican-crafted hearing--Innovation vs. Regulation. Ranking member Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) said she didn't think it was an "either/or" proposition, while Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said she thought the name was a good fit.

Eshoo is working on a draft of a retrans bill that would mandate interim carriage, not require cable subs to buy retrans stations as part of the basic package--there is currently a must-buy provision for all TV stations--and disallow joint retrans and co-owned cable channel negotiations.

She conceded at the hearing that the draft was meant to be "a series of ideas intended to spur constructive and actionable debate on ways to improve the video marketplace for video content creators, pay-TV providers and, most importantly, consumers." And most Republicans were indicating, as the title of the hearing suggested, that what was needed was less government intervention in the marketplace, not more.

Eshoo praised CBS and Time Warner Cable for resolving their retrans fight, but said she did not think that retrans blackouts were defensible given that there had been, since 2005, 70 retrans impasses involving 392 stations in 297 markets resulting in 3,853 days of blackouts.

"Statutes and regulations adopted during a bygone era may not only be hindering innovation but worse, may impose inefficiencies that harm businesses, consumers," said Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) in his opening statement.

The hearing proved a venue for airing familiar criticisms, including of blackouts, of retrans rules cable ops say favor broadcasters, sports costs, the need--or lack of it--or compulsory licenses, and more.

As expected, in the wake of the CBS/Time Warner Cable battle, retrans was top of mind with many, including legislators and, the latter featuring R. Stanton Dodge from Dish; Edward Munson GM of KPHO-TV Phoenix; David Rozzelle, from Suddenlink; James Campbell from CenturyLink; Sandra Aistars from the Copyright Alliance; and John Bergmayer from Public Knowledge.

Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) focused on CBS's blocking of online content to Time Warner Cable broadband subs during the blackout. "I am very concerned about the blocking of online content in retrans disputes," he said. "This is new ground that is being broken here. I hope this does not become the new normal in retans disputes."

The hearing was part of the run-up to the renewal of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act.

The legislation could become a venue for retrans and other changes. It contains the compulsory distant signal license that allows satellite operators to import those stations under a blanket license. Cable ops want to use that to import competing network affiliate signals if they can't reach local market retans deals.

That distant signal license expires a the end of 2014. Also up for discussion in the bill, though they do not sunset, are the compulsory local-into-local license that allows satellite operators to deliver local market stations to subscribers, and the cable compulsory license that allows cable ops to carry the content in TV station signals under a blanket license. Cable ops must also negotiate for signal carriage under retrans if a station elects not to invoke must carry.

Munson's message was that the retrans regime was working, that only a fraction of one percent of negotiations result in blackouts. Dodge's was that blackouts are on the rise and broadcasters benefit from government protections that skew retrans in their favor.

Munson said that his company, Meredith, had reached successful negotiations with CenturyLink. Campbell countered that that was because the cable operator had to take what it could get.

Walden did some probing of the Eshoo proposal to unbundle TV station and co-owned cable channel negotiation. He pointed out that cable operators sell bundles of their own channels and services, and asked why that was different from broadcasters bundling content.

Dodge and Campbell said they are limited in how they can offer services due to their contracts, but that their packages are as flexible as they can make them given those constraints. Campbell said that subscribers can go to another provider if they don't like cable bundles, but cable operators can't go somewhere else to get those TV stations and co-owned channels.

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.