Retrans-Consent Reform May Be Coming at Last

WASHINGTON — After little action on retransmission consent in the past couple of years, the Federal Communications Commission, under chairman Tom Wheeler, is poised to strike.

If his predecessor, Julius Genachowski, seemed more of a Hamlet when it came to retrans decisions, Wheeler is Hotspur. Or, taking a page from the history Wheeler loves, more Grant than McClellan.

Broadcasters are already pining for the days of indecision.

The chairman last week signaled he would circulate an item today (March 10) disallowing coordinated retransmission-consent agreements between two, separately-owned, top-four stations in a market, and the FCC would presume any other coordinated retrans among two stations, top or not, would not be in the public interest.

That item, to be voted on March 31, is an action on the long-open retrans-reform docket pushed by the American Television Alliance and opened by then-chairman Genachowski.

In addition, as expected, Wheeler proposed making joint sales agreements (JSAs) exceeding 15% of a station’s ad sales attributable as ownership interest.

Cable operators have backed both of these moves.

TV station groups’ stocks — including that of Sinclair, widely believed to be a target of the shared services crackdown — were down last week on fears that decoupling retrans negotiations would reduce stations’ retrans take. That appeared to be the FCC’s goal since officials, on background, cited escalating cable rates as a reason for the move. They said rates were driven by collaboration among stations that were supposed to be competitors.

One broadcast source suggested they would not “fall on their swords” over that move. Broadcasters would still be able to negotiate group retrans deals among owned stations. But the same source also said he expected broadcasters would not take the news well. The National Association of Broadcasters had no comment.

Broadcasters hardly had time to celebrate their lobbying victory in the House, getting Republicans to drop a provision from legislation to reauthorize the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA) that would have scrapped the mandate requiring cable operators to put retrans stations on their must-buy basic tiers.

In a shot across the bow at the JSA item, the same draft said the FCC could not make JSAs or any other sharing agreements attributable, except as part of action on the media-ownership rules in general via the 2010 quadrennial.

Broadcasters celebrated that development, but STELA won’t be finished until the end of the year, while the FCC vote will turn the JSA limits into regulations once they are published in the Federal Register. So this round goes to cable operators.

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.