Legislation Introduced to Overhaul Retransmission Consent

Two separate pieces of legislation were introduced in Congress on Thursday that would upend retransmission consent negotiations, which have stirred lawmakers after consumers have found broadcast channels blacked out over extended periods.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) introduced the Video CHOICE Act, which would give the FCC authority to grant interim carriage of a broadcast station during a negotiation impasse. Their legislation also would prohibit a TV broadcast station from using cable channels they own as bargaining chips in a negotiation. A subscriber also would be able to buy cable TV service without subscribing to broadcast stations that elect to collect retransmission fees.

Eshoo unveiled draft legislation in September, shortly after a high-profile, month-long standoff that saw Time Warner Cable pull CBS-owned stations from its lineup as negotiations reached an impasse.

“My bill would put an end to broadcast television blackouts and ensure consumers aren’t held hostage by a dispute they have no control over, ” Eshoo said in a statement. “Recurring TV blackouts coupled with the rising cost of broadcast television programming has left consumers frustrated and looking to Congress and the FCC for answers.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) reintroduced the Next Generation Television Marketplace Act. Rather than give the FCC more authority, their bill would loosen and overhaul regulations across the board. It would repeal the 1992 Communications Act’s retransmission consent provisions as well as the 1976 Copyright Act’s compulsory copyright provision. The retrans rules require that cable and satellite operators get permission from broadcasters before carrying their signals, and it has resulted in a lucrative revenue stream for the networks and local stations.

Scalise’s bill also would repeal local media ownership limits.

Both bills face long odds, but their reflect the increasingly contentious debate in Washington, as cable and satellite providers step up their lobbying for reform of retransmission consent rules they say favor broadcasters.

Broadcasters defend the current regime of retransmission negotiations by pointing out that the vast majority of cases do produce TV blackouts and are settled quietly.

Gordon Smith, CEO of the National Assn. of Broadcasters, said in a statement that the two bills are “utterly inconsistent with each other,” and said that they “find it sad that pay TV companies who built their broadband, voice and video businesses on the backs of local TV signals now balk at the notion of paying a fair market rate for the most-watched programming on television.”

The American Cable Assn., which represents smaller and medium sized cable companies, praised the two bills. They said that the Video Choice Act “will provide relief to consumers harmed by outdated retransmission consent rules that broadcasters’ relentlessly abuse, highlighted by a record number of TV signal blackouts and escalating price demands well in excess of inflation.” And they said that the Scalise bill “will set the stage for replacing archaic laws and regulations with a fresh set of policies that will truly serve the public interest.”

Time Warner Cable also welcomed the legislation. “While the bills take different approaches to addressing the broken retransmission consent system, it is clear that both Democrats and Republicans recognize the escalating harm to consumers,” the company said.

Eshoo is ranking member of a House subcommittee on communications and technology, and Scalise is a member. Lofgren is a member of the House Judiciary Committee.

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