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Senators Unveil Legislation to Free Broadcast Channels from Cable Bundles

The broadcast lobby is fighting a legislative effort that would allow cable customers to pick and choose which over-the-air stations they want as part of their subscriptions.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, and Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), its ranking member, circulated their legislation on Friday. It would allow multichannel video customers to purchase access to broadcast channels on an individual basis, at a price set by the station. In other words, consumers would have the choice on whether to buy the stations, rather than be forced to take them as part of basic cable packages. And of course, customers can always get rabbit ears and receive the stations for free.

While the rationale behind the legislation is to address rising TV bills, broadcasters immediately took aim. Gordon Smith, CEO of the National Assn. of Broadcasters, said that the bill “proposes a broadcast a la carte scheme that will lead to higher prices and less program diversity.” He also objected to provisions that would allow the FCC to have greater oversight of retransmission consent negotiations, which have led to some recent high profile disputes between multichannel providers and broadcast networks.

The bill would ask that the FCC look into whether a broadcaster’s blocking of their website violates a requirement that negotiations be in “good faith.” Last year, a showdown between CBS and Time Warner Cable left TWC customers without Eye-owned channels for about a month. CBS blocked online videos during the impasse.

Broadcasters have come to depend on a growing stream of retransmission revenue — estimated at $4 billion — and the legislation would likely put that level of return in doubt.

But Rockefeller and Thune have attached their proposals to ongoing efforts to reauthorize a law that allows rural satellite subscribers to receive distant TV signals. The House and the Senate Judiciary Committee have already passed a reauthorization of the law, which expires at the end of the year, but it does not include provisions that would upend retransmission negotiations or consumer choices of their stations.

The American Television Alliance, representing satellite and cable companies, praised the Rockefeller-Thune legislation.

“The reforms that it provides will bring relief to TV viewers who have suffered from skyrocketing fees and blackouts, including the millions of DirecTV subscribers across the country who are currently being blacked out by Raycom,” the organization said.

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