Don't look for any game-changing decisions on retrans out of
this FCC, says National Cable and Telecommunications Association President
Powell was answering audience questions after a Paley Center
luncheon conversation Tuesday, during which he weighed in on the prospects
for FCC action. A number of cable operators have been pushing the commission to
step into retrans disputes to mandate carriage or arbitration, but the FCC has
taken no action.
Powell was hardly surprised. Asked how much action he
expected from the government on retrans given that cable operator push, he said
that when FCC chairmen leave office, they hand their successor a list of things
"to stay the hell out of." Retrans, he said, would be one of those.
Powell suggested it was a no-win issue for regulators
because the FCC does not have a lot of jurisdictional authority, so that if the
commission makes the public think it can solve it when it can't, it has
to answer for not doing so. He pointed out that neither he nor his
predecessors Bill Kennard or Reed Hundt had tackled the issue, and he did not
expect current Chairman Julius Genachowski to break with that tradition.
He suggested the exception would be if it got new direction
from Congress as part of a more comprehensive rewrite of TV regulation. If next
year the 1992 Cable Act is revisited, he said, then everything is on the table,
including retrans/must carry, program access and carriage, and compulsory
Powell was asked what concessions he thought might have to
be made to get the Verizon-SpectrumCo deal approved. He said he did not know,
but was willing to opine as an antitrust attorney -- formerly with the Justice
Department -- that he didn't see anything controversial in the spectrum
exchange from companies who don't want to use it (cable ops Comcast, Time Warner
Cable, Cox and Bright House) and a willing buyer (Verizon) who were not direct
competitors. He said the associated marketing agreements were the more
"questionable" element. But he also said the theories against those
were "challenging," though he conceded the government was looking
"very hard" at them.
Powell was not shy about gauging the current state of
navigation of programming, at least through traditional means. The remote
control "truly sucks," he said, as does the current interface. He
opined that kids have been taught a new language of navigation that is all
about expectation. If there is no back button, or forward, or URL window,
"you've lost them."
He suggested one short-term solution for finding them again
was already in many viewers hands, including his: a tablet or iPad.
All major companies are allowing guides to be put on an iPad
or other device, he said, speaking from experience. He has downloaded Cox's
"really cool" app for his iPad, which he uses instead of the alternatives.
But he called that solution a patch. Long-term, he pointed
to Comcast's new X1 platform, where it is replacing set-top guides with one
that resides on a server in Denver and has that slick, easily searchable feel
and can be changed and pushed out from a central location.
On a related note, Powell said he welcomed Apple TV.
"As a cable guy I wish they would come," he said. That is because he
saw it as the potential wedding of Apples "genius" with innovative
navigation devices and cable's content and still-paying subs. He said he
personally did not think Apple would be getting into the distribution side.
Powell, who is a TV-phile as well as technophile, said that
he thought television was just about the greatest thing in the history of
mankind, offering artists undreamed of palettes as well as the time and
investment to produce great shows. He cited Weeds, The Wire, The Sopranos and Mad Men,
and pointed out that cable was "running off" with "all kids of
He did not mention, though he could have, that in the
just-announced Critics Choice Television Awards, cable swept the drama category
with nods for best drama, actor, actress, supporting actor and actress, and
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