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NCTA to Lobby on Retransmission Consent

The cable industry’s principal trade association, in a policy shift, is going to lobby Congress about problems with laws governing cable carriage of local TV stations, National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow told reporters Thursday.

But McSlarrow said the NCTA hasn’t decided on legislative goals that enjoy broad member support.

“Unlike several months ago, we plan to be engaged in this debate,” he said. “I’m not racing to the Hill asking for legislation. We want to be part of that conversation. We’re thinking through what kind of ideas might be good solutions for that.”

The NCTA’s effort will likely meet stiff resistance from broadcasters, which have many key lawmakers in their corner, including House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), who helped to pass the 1992 law that gave TV stations the right to demand compensation from pay TV distributors, also called retransmission consent.

The NCTA has been sidelined on the issue because important cable-programming members, including Disney and General Electric, own TV stations that rely on retransmission consent.

Although the NCTA remains divided on a “solution,” McSlarrow said his board “would prefer to have NCTA engage in this debate.”

One objective, he added, was to debunk the notion that retransmission consent is “purely and simply a free-market negotiation” between a TV station and a cable company. “That,” McSlarrow said, “is complete nonsense.”

The NCTA intends to point out several regulatory advantages of TV stations, including access to free spectrum; exclusive local distribution of network programming; free cable carriage if the station lacks the clout to demand cash; and the requirement that cable subscribers purchase the broadcast-basic programming tier before any other programming service.

“Every consumer who buys the cable package has to, by law, buy the broadcast tier before they buy anything else,” McSlarrow said. “There should be a legitimate focus on what’s happening to the customer. They’re going pay higher rates or they are going to lose the signal for some period of time.”

McSlarrow said it was probable that NCTA would support a bill that gave cable customers the option to bypass the purchase of local TV signals.

“While we haven’t made a final, final decision on the must-buy tier, I think, yes, that would be one idea that we could endorse,” he added.