Sens. Press Moonves on Not Running Local Choice Ads

A pair of Senators has written CBS President Leslie Moonves asking why CBS refused to run ads for the cable-backed "Local Choice" proposal.

While Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D- Conn.) and Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) said that they recognized CBS had the right to "exercise appropriate discretion over its advertising practices," they said they needed answers related to the blocking of commercial ads "in this instance."

The "Local Choice" proposal was offered up by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D- W. Va.) and ranking member John Thune (R-S.D.), they pointed out, as a way to address rising retrans fees and blackouts, both also issues of concern to Blumenthal and Fischer.

They said that given CBS' obligation to operate in the public interest — which they suggest includes allowing an "open and honest debate" about the future of the video marketplace — the senators say they want Moonves to explain some things. Those include why the ads did not meet advertising standards, whether they recognized the ads were to run on other platforms, whether they provided ATVA with a reason for not airing the ads, whether CBS has refused to air ads related to communications policies in the past and would it ever consider denying ads to political committee which which CBS disagrees. They also wanted a response to this observation: "Quoting from Justice Brandeis, in cases where CBS has an editorial or commercial position contrary to a prospective advertiser seeking to espouse a reasonable though different view, isn't the best remedy more speech, rather than enforced speech?"

ATVA spokesman Brian Frederick said CBS never provided any explanation to its radio buyer, beyond saying it did not meet their standards. A CBS Radio spokesperson told B&C/Multi last week that the ads did not meet their standards, but did not elaborate. A CBS spokesperson was not available for comment at press time on the senators’ letter.

Ever since the FCC invalidated the Fairness Doctrine rule in 1987, there is no requirement that broadcasters air both sides of public policy debates, and they are not required to air ads except that if they sell political time to one candidate they must make time available for their opponent.

While the Local Choice proposal was pulled this week from a Senate Commerce Committee draft of satellite reauthorization legislation, and the American Television Alliance is no longer running the ads, Frederick says the retrans debate isn't going away and there could be a next time for such blocking. The committee said as much in a statement, pointing out that the senators were removing Local Choice from the satellite bill so it could pass out of Committee next week, not because they were not still interested in getting it into law — it would not kick in until 2017 anyway.

Moonves has been a leader in getting retrans fees for what broadcasters argue has been undervalued must-have content. The Local Choice proposal would essentially end the retrans payment regime by giving MVPD subs the choice of not paying for TV station signals and moving that decision to one between broadcasters and MVPD subs, with the MVPD collecting the fees-without markup--and turning them over to broadcasters.

“We thank Sen. Fischer and Sen. Blumenthal for their interest in the issue," said Frederick. "CBS has the right to disagree with us on retransmission consent, but it’s certainly not in the public interest for them to stifle debate on the issue.”

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.