FCC kicks off TV retrans 'good faith' review


Michelle Clancy

| 13 August 2015

TV retransmission is coming under the microscope as the FCC launches its review of the definition of good faith retransmission consent negotiations.

The hope is to lessen the frequency of blackouts due to content carriage disputes between broadcasters and pay-TV companies. Since the FCC re-authorised the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA), it has been compelled to open a rulemaking by 4 September to review the "totality of circumstances" test for how it defines "good faith negotiations."

Must-carry regulation dictates that broadcasters can demand that cable and direct broadcast satellite operators compensate them to carry their station feeds. The cost of these retransmission consent agreements has skyrocketed over the last five years, leading to prolonged blackouts in some circumstances. And in many of those circumstances, cable companies have said that broadcasters have not negotiated in good faith, using tactics like blocking access to online content, bundling TV station signals with affiliated cable nets, and relying on FCC exclusivity rules, which say that pay-TV companies can't find a different source for the blacked out content during a dispute.

"The retransmission consent system is broken and the FCC must take action to protect consumers from broadcaster blackouts and broadcaster abuses," said Trent Duffy, spokesman for the American Television Alliance, which represents cable and satellite operators.

"Broadcaster blackouts are wreaking havoc for consumers across the country and TV fans are paying more and more for 'free' channels. The FCC must update its rules to prevent consumers from being exploited by the broadcast industry's outrageous brass-knuckle tactics. Broadcasters have been arguing that the retrans system is not broken, so does not need fixing, but given that Congress has mandated it, they argue the FCC should focus on pay-TV practices" he added.

Robert Kenny, spokesman for TVfreedom.org, had a different take. "A fair and balanced approach regarding future programming disputes requires that the FCC scrutinise pay-TV providers that manufacture TV blackouts that, in effect, disrupt customers' access to valued broadcast TV content," he said. "In reality, local TV programming costs amount to just a small fraction of pay-TV subscriber charges and the public interest would be best served if federal regulators were to focus on policies that address the full gamut of monthly fees."