Skip to main content

Retrans Reform Fans Call FCC NPRM 'First Step'

Early reaction was generally positive to the news
that the FCC would be issuing a rulemaking on network neutrality, likely within
the first quarter of 2011, though fans of retrans reform were calling it a
first step and suggesting more work needs to be done.

Cable operators in the form of the American Television Alliance (ATVA) called the NPRM "welcome news for millions of American TV viewers."

FCC Media Bureau Chief Bill Lake did not say the rulemaking proposal would include remedies ATVA was seeking, so the group took the opportunity to urge the FCC to take that next step. "We encourage the FCC to make changes that include a framework to resolve disputes and a ban on broadcaster blackouts during negotiations.  We look forward to working with the FCC on the rulemaking and will continue to work with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to balance the scales and protect consumers."

One scale that apparently will no longer be open for business is Sen. John Kerry's proposed network neutrality legislation. He said that, in light of the FCC proposal, he would no longer be introducing that bill, at least not now.

ATVA was created earlier this year by strange bedfellows, a mix of of cable operators--Cablevision, Charter, Time Warner--programmers, satellite companies, telcos and even the Parents Television Council and Public Knowledge.

“We are very pleased to see the FCC begin a new look at retransmission consent," said Public Knowledge President Gigi Sohn. "These disputes between broadcasters and cable operators are becoming more frequent and increasingly bitter, and consumers are more than ever becoming innocent victims of those disputes. That’s why we and others asked the FCC in March to start a rulemaking on the issues."

"The NPRM is a constructive step forward and serious review of a marketplace that has undergone significant changes and merits a fresh look," said National Cable & Telecommunications Association spokesman Brian Dietz.

"ACA applauds the Federal Communications
Commission's intention to launch a rulemaking to review the broken retransmission
consent regime that local TV stations have been abusing to gouge cable
operators and their customers for many years, especially in small markets
where ACA members are most active," said American Cable Association
President Matt Polka. ACA was one of the signatories on a Time Warner
Cable-spearheaded petition to get the FCC to reform retrans rules,
including mandating outside arbitration in standstill agreements.

"Procedural reforms designed to supply consumers
with timely information and protect them from broadcasters' ‘blackmail or
blackout' stratagems are a solid first step," said Polka. "As FCC
Media Bureau Chief William Lake outlined in his speech today at the MediaInstitute.
In his remarks, Chief Lake said the rulemaking would be broad in scope,
and ACA commends him for wanting the FCC's review to be as comprehensive
as possible."

"This is a good step toward resolving retransmission
disputes, but the FCC will need to do more than just help cable companies and
broadcasters," said Corie Wright, policy counsel for Free Press.
"A definition of good-faith bargaining does little to stop companies from
threatening to pull channels from subscribers, and it does less to help
consumers who have lost channels they paid for during a blackout."

Lake said in a speech at the Media Institute
Wednesday that the FCC would open a broad notice, but with an emphasis on
better defining good faith bargaining and better informing consumers
about retrans impasses. The FCC's focus is on reducing the impact and
instances of signal cut-offs. Lake referred to an old African proverb to make
his point, saying that when elephants fight, it's the grass that gets

Wright used the retrans rulemaking announcement to press for
making cable per-channel prices public and for a la carte. "Both sides of this
market are broken, and the only lasting fix will be empowering consumers with
information about the prices and terms for carriage of each and every channel
in their subscription, as well as giving them the right to opt out of paying
for any unwanted channels," he said. "In the event of signals being
pulled, consumers certainly should not have to continue to pay for channels
that they no longer receive."