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Press Pressed By Fractious Retrans Factions

The retransmission war of words continued to rage in Washington Thursday.

The American Television Alliance held a conference call to say that there was a critical mass of congressional support for fixing the broken retransmission consent regime and that the question now was not whether but when. The National Association of Broadcasters countered with their own press conference.

One suggestion on the call was that "when" would likely be when Congress weighs in on the re-authorization of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act at the end of 2014.

ATVA was buoyed by Hill hearings this week where retrans was a featured player, including a new retrans reform bill from Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) that ATVA supports.

Brian Frederick, representing ATVA, said that "from the left side of the spectrum to the right side of the spectrum there is an agreement that the retransmission consent system is broken and that we need some kind of reform."

Michael Calabrese of the New America Foundation, which was among the petitioners to the FCC for retrans reform, said broadcasters should not be able to black out viewers and "hold viewers hostage for higher retransmission fees." He said it was not a contract dispute between equally evil--he amended that to "equally greedy" industries. He said that difference was broadcasters public interest obligation "that is paid for by the public already in free spectrum."

John Breyault, VP of public policy at National Consumer League, who was also on the ATVA call, said the focus should be on consumers, not broadcasters or cable operators.

The conference was followed by a press call with the National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton, who countered that ATVA--whose members include Time Warner Cable, Dish and DirecTV--was creating retrans "hysteria" in Washington for political purposes.

He said that broadcasters still had friends on the Hill who recognized the value of that service. "I think there are a lot of people who understand the importance of broadcasting. If members of Congress want to get their political ads on TV they have to come to local broadcasting because were'e the conduit between them and the constituents. [NAB President and former senator] Gordon Smith has a few friends, I know that."

Wharton said he did not see any reason to change the retrans law, "unless you maybe tweak it to provide consumer rebates when there is an impasse and an end to the early termination fees that would allow people to switch to another provider in the event of an impasse." He was echoing a comment Smith made earlier in the week in response to the news that a retrans reform bill was being circulated. "[I]t is troubling that a proposal billed as 'pro-consumer' continues to allow pay-TV providers to avoid viewer rebates for loss of broadcast TV programming during a disruption," Smith said. "Coincidentally, the draft bill is also silent on ending the practice of charging consumers upwards of $200 in 'early termination fees' to shift to another pay-TV provider during a disruption."

In a letter to Wharton, Mediacom attorney Joseph Young said that if NAB felt that way about retail, he felt sure they would feel the same way about the wholesale issue of cable operators paying for broadcast stations that had been losing must-have sports programming and movies and otherwise losing value during the course of retrans agreement. He said broadcasters should then be willing in those cases to offer rebates to cable ops or let them out of their retrans contracts without penalty.

Wharton was not available for comment, but NAB said in a statement: "Mediacom conveniently forgets that broadcasters only began receiving retrans fees a few years ago, and the fees local broadcasters receive lag far behind the fees paid to lesser-watched cable networks. Broadcasters are simply looking to be compensated at an equitable rate for the audiences we deliver."