MVPDs Want Retrans Buffer in ATSC Rollout

WASHINGTON — A retransmission-consent battle is brewing over the rollout of the next-generation broadcast transmission standard.

Cable operators said simulcasts would be a new lever in negotiations, while broadcasters counter that if multichannel video programming distributors can’t stand the heat of marketplace negotiations, they are free not to carry their TV-station signals.

The American Television Alliance (ATVA) has said it’s fine with a totally voluntary transition to the new ATSC 3.0 broadcast-transmission standard, as long as that means carriage of those signals by MVPDs, which will be simulcasts at first, is also totally voluntary, and not tied to carriage of broadcasters’ primary signals. The ATVA, whose members include cable operators and satellite-TV providers, made that assertion in comments filed with the Federal Communications Commission.

The ATVA told the FCC that the best way to ensure that broadcasters don’t try to leverage carriage of the ATSC 3.0 simulcasts by tying them to the carriage of their standard signals is by making them separate negotiations.

ATVA has argued that broadcasters already do that with their signals now, saying that explains why Tennis Channel carriage has increased since station group Sinclair Broadcast Group purchased the network in January 2016. Actually, that is how many cable networks got an early foothold on MVPDs, via negotiations in which broadcasters took carriage of co-owned cable networks as compensation for their TV-station signals.

The ATVA said the FCC should prohibit broadcasters from compelling ATSC 3.0 simulcast carriage through bundled retrans deals.

The group said its members have reported that broadcasters have already sought ATSC 3.0 carriage by threatening to withhold retransmission-consent agreements for their primary signals.

Broadcasters and technology companies have told the FCC that issues related to retransmission consent are “irrelevant” to the proceeding. As to the FCC asking whether broadcasters could use retrans to compel ATSC 3.0 carriage — as ATVA claims, the National Association of Broadcasters, joined by consumer-technology companies and noncommercial TV stations, argue that if MVPDs don’t like the terms of a deal, they don’t have to carry their signals.

“If MVPDs find retransmission-consent negotiations with a particular broadcaster unpalatable, they can elect not to agree to the broadcaster’s requests and not to carry the station,” they told the FCC.

And the issues of fair patent prices? “Wholly irrelevant,” the broadcasters and tech companies said.

ATVA has several other requests for the commission, including that it:

• “Should require that patent-holders in the ATSC 3.0 standard [Sinclair is one of those] and related standards agree to reasonable and nondiscriminatory (or ‘RAND’) pricing and make clear that it will enforce such commitments;
• “Should update the fees broadcasters pay to offer ‘ancillary and supplementary’ services, in light of 20 years of additional auction data;
• “Should specify whether there is a point at which the offering of differentiated television content to individual viewers no longer constitutes ‘broadcasting’ in order to avoid adverse consequences down the road.”

MVPDs and broadcasters have only a few more months to make their cases if FCC chairman Ajit Pai sticks to his timetable of voting on a proposed ATSC 3.0 rollout framework by year-end.

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.