Chairman: FCC authority ‘limited’ on retrans feuds

Genachowski not inclined to get involved in touchy disputes

As Time Warner Cable takes on Hearst and DirecTV feuds with Viacom in the latest high-profile retransmission disputes, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski hardly seemed anxious to step into the fray.

Appearing Tuesday at an agency oversight hearing of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, Genachowski said that despite the study of proposed rules changes regarding retrans disputes, some of which have left consumers without prized sports channels and broadcast stations, the agency’s current authority is “limited.” When Rep. Charles Bass (R-N.H.) asked him when the FCC would act on its proposals, Genachowski said he would have to get back to him on a timeline.

“Our options are limited,” Genachowski said. “I wouldn’t say that should hold up any inquiry by the committee in changing the law.”

Reforming the rules risks a long and protracted battle pitting one side of the industry against the other. In general, cable operators and satellite providers would like to see mechanisms in place to prevent so-called blackouts of channels, while broadcasters warn against the FCC’s intrusion into private negotiations, particularly those that involve a lucrative revenue stream. At another Capitol Hill hearing last month, Hearst TV’s David Barrett defended the status quo while Dish Network’s Charlie Ergen called it an “unfair food fight.”

As was clear at the subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, the FCC’s top concerns at the moment include the pending “incentive” auctions in which TV stations would voluntarily give up spectrum in exchange for some of the proceeds from the sale. The idea is to free up more of the airwaves for fast-growing wireless services, but broadcasters have been skeptical of how that auction plan will be carried out and of just how many stations will be willing to participate.

Genachowski told the subcommittee that the incentive auctions — approved in legislation signed by President Obama earlier this year — amount to “a complex task affecting major parts of our economy and involving many challenging questions of economics and engineering.” He said that he expected the FCC to put forth its plans for the auctions by this fall.

Nevertheless, some lawmakers, including Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), pressed Genachowski to provide specific details of information used to make a model of the auctions and a plan to “repack” TV stations on the channel lineup to free up spectrum space. Stations that stay in business will be compensated for the costs of moving on the channel lineup, but broadcasters still worry that their business will be undermined.

“The commission will make public all information that is relevant to move forward to implement incentive auctions,” Genachowski said.

He appeared at the hearing with the four other FCC commissioners, including Robert McDowell, who called on the White House to do more to free up spectrum held by the federal government. McDowell doubted that the incentive auctions would meet a goal of obtaining 80 Mhz of spectrum but said that an audit or study of government use could show that more could be relinquished by agencies and departments. The president, he said, could issue an executive order that would quickly get the process moving to free up more government-held spectrum. “We are looking at a real drought right now absent some quick action and leadership,” he said.