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Regulation - What is it Good For?

Is it Time to Kill Retransmission Rules?

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) recently introduced a bill to Congress labeled as the Introducing the Modern Television Act of 2021 that wants to largely do away with the retransmission consent rules for cable companies. They’ve introduced similar bills in recent years.

Retransmission rules require that cable operators must carry local TV stations that are within over-the-air transmission range of a given area. That rule sounds benign enough but has been used by local stations to extract huge fees from cable companies for carrying local content. The fees paid to local stations are one of the primary reasons that cable TV rates have escalated so quickly over the last decade.

Fifteen years ago, it was rare for local stations to charge anything for carrying their signal. They were happy to be able to claim cable viewers of their content when calculating advertising rates based upon ‘eyeballs’ for ads placed on their stations. But a handful of consultants convinced a few stations that the retransmission requirements were a valuable commodity and stations started insisting on payments from cable companies to carry the content. Since that time, the payments have climbed from zero to rates in the range of $4 or more per cable customer, per local station per month. For a cable company carrying even the basic four networks of ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC means shelling out $16 or more per month to local stations for each cable subscriber.

It was these fees that have led the big cable companies to create the local programming fees that are not part of basic rates. Cable companies may advertise a basic rate for a cable package at $50 but then sock on large hidden fees of $20 or more to cover local station fees along with some sports network fees.

The bill sponsors also blame high retransmission fees for the increasing blackouts of content that we’ve seen in recent years. When cable companies balk at paying increasing rates each year for local content, the local stations have adopted the tactic of shutting off access to their content until the cable company finally agrees to pay the ever-increasing rates.

Following are a few of the key provisions of the bill:

  • Eliminates the retransmission consent, mandatory copyright fees, and other provisions of current FCC rules (which were dictated by Congress). This should allow for real negotiations of rates – today the stations demand rates and there is little room for negotiation.
  • Adds a 60-day period where blackouts of content aren’t allowed when the local station and a cable operator are negotiating rates.
  • Gives the FCC the right to push a programming dispute into binding arbitration. Blackouts would be prohibited during the arbitration period.
  • Preempts federal, state, and local governments from regulating cable rates. This is an odd requirement since there is little or no rate regulation that I know of, but it must exist somewhere in the country.
  • Keeps the rule that cable networks and satellite providers must continue to carry local content.

As would be expected, local TV stations and the major networks are against these changes. Most of the money charged for retransmission consent ends up in the pockets of the major networks. Cable companies are obviously in favor of the proposed changes since it would give them an opportunity for real negotiations for content.

Congress created this original mess by mandating that cable companies must carry local content without allowing for things like the arbitration in negotiations this bill brings to the process. But the runaway rates in the cable industry can be pinned on the greed of programmers who have raised programming charges far more than inflation for two decades. The industry has driven cable rates so high that millions of households are cutting the cord annually and abandoning paying for content that includes local stations. If you were asked to imagine a scenario where an industry would self-destruct over time, it would be hard to think of a better example than the retransmission fees in the TV industry.

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