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Broadcasters, distributors debate retransmission consent rules at FCC

May 26, 2011 |  2:49 pm

Broadcasters and cable operators are getting ready to square off at the Federal Communications Commission as the regulatory agency reviews its retransmission consent rules.

The rules, which give broadcasters the right to negotiate fees from distributors such as cable and satellite operators in return for carriage of their channels, have been around for almost two decades.

However,the last few years have seen several highly contested negotiations between broadcasters and distributors including a few that led to channels going off the air.

The FCC has expressed reluctance about overhauling the regulations, but pressure from Congress and the cable industry led the agency to issue a notice of proposed rule-making and it is now taking comments from the industry and public on how to proceed. As FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps put it a couple of months ago, the current system basically amounts to "big money against big money" with the consumer getting "pummeled."

The deadline for comments is Friday and usually companies wait until the last minute to file, but a couple of interested parties are looking to beat the holiday rush.

Cablevision Systems Corp., a New York-based cable operator that was involved in two of the more high-profile disputes with broadcasters last year and one of the biggest advocates of more government oversight, offered up several proposals in its filing with the agency.

Specifically, Cablevision would like the FCC to prevent broadcasters from bundling. Often when a broadcaster is negotiating a deal for one channel, it seeks to get carriage for other channels it owns as well. Fox, for example, wanted distributors to have to carry its National Geographic Channel as part of deals to carry the Fox network stations.

The practice, Cablevision says, leads to higher consumer costs by "forcing carriage of their channels of limited interest."

Of course, the practice of bundling is not limited to broadcast companies that also own cable channels such as Fox and ABC. Lots of companies bundle networks together as well. Cablevision's Rainbow owns several networks including AMC, We and IFC that can be purchased in a bundle.

Cablevision also asked for more transparency and wants broadcasters to disclose to the public the price tag for their channels and prohibit television stations with different owners from teaming up to negotiate deals with distributors. Doing so, the company argued, would level the playing field.

The National Assn. of Broadcasters, which represents local TV stations and networks, is arguing that the FCC should leave the rules alone.

"It is extremely rare for retransmission consent negotiations to result in disruptions to consumers’ viewing," the trade association said in a statement.

The nation's largest cable operator -- Comcast Corp. -- will be staying out of this fight now that it also owns NBC and its local television stations.

-- Joe Flint


FCC votes to revisit retransmission consent rules