A House subcommittee hearing on Wednesday was intended to be a crystal ball into the future of video, but the presence of so many major players from broadcasting, cable, satellite and the Internet inevitably led to disputes over the technology of today.
Hearst Television prexy-CEO David Barrett defended existing retransmission consent rules, saying the rules should also be applied to new entrants in the video marketplace, while Dish Network chairman Charlie Ergen characterized them as outdated regulations that have led to an increasing number of station blackouts. “Broadcasters play the pay TV providers against one another,” Ergen said, adding that it was an “unfair food fight.”
Ergen’s presence at the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology hearing led to talk of Dish’s controversial AutoHop feature that allows customers to automatically skip through commercials. CBS, NBC and Fox are battling Dish in federal court, but Ergen told lawmakers that “allowing your kids to watch TV doesn’t have to mean they have no choice but to see commercials for junk food and alcohol.”
He said that AutoHop does “nothing more than improve upon existing, legally accepted and widely available technologies” and is responding to “our customers’ changing needs.”
Admittedly skeptical of AutoHop was Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), who at one point even mistakenly referred to Ergen as “Mr. Hopper.” Dingell asked Ergen if he understood why he and other politicians on the subcommittee would be concerned over a service that would potentially skip over political ads.
“I understand the consumer very well, but I am not a politician, so I cannot say I understand your concerns as well,” Ergen said, to some laughter.
The hearing did focus on what is bound to be one of the biggest issues facing Internet video services: data caps, or Internet service providers’ limits on the amount of bandwidth consumers can access in a single month. Netflix general counsel David Hyman said that platforms and networks should not use their leverage to “stifle video providers.”
Public Knowledge CEO Gigi Sohn warned of the abuse of data caps as a way for cable operators, often also ISPs, to favor their own video services. She has called for the FCC to study how data caps are being raised or lowered, but so far “they have refused.”
Sohn said she did not think data caps are “inherently bad, but they can be abused.” She’s in favor of an overhaul or scrapping of many regulations but stressed that there has to be robust development of Internet video competitors.
Offering a somewhat different rationale for regulatory reform was Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), co-author of a bill to wipe away many communications regulations. He said that the current system leaves “new entrants virtually free from the heavy hand of government. It encourages new entrants to cherry-pick regulations that benefit their platform.”