Retrans Surfaces as Hot D.C. Topic

May 23, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Broadcasters expressed displeasure last week following the surprise announcement by Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, that he is planning hearings on retransmission consent.

The process through which stations negotiate for compensation from cable operators for carriage of their signals has been a source of friction between broadcast and cable interests.

“Cable operators built their businesses on the backs of local broadcasters,” said Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters. “It’s not too outrageous to suggest that they compensate local stations for the high-quality programming that local broadcasters provide.”

Added a network TV official: “We spend billions of dollars each year to program our network, and it is patently unreasonable for any cable operator to take our product for free, sell it to consumers and keep all the money.”

Still, at a meeting sponsored by the American Cable Association in Washington last week, Sen. Stevens, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said he believes the retransmission consent rules, authorized by the Cable TV Act of 1992, were intended to ensure cable carriage of broadcast signals.

The lawmaker also said he is bothered by cable industry allegations that broadcasters have been using the regulations to force cable operators to carry new cable networks owned by the broadcast networks-or to seek cash.

“It doesn’t sound right,” Sen. Stevens said. “So we’ve got to get it out in front of God and everybody and let them [networks] come in and testify to what they’re doing.”

On a related note, Sen. Stevens also expressed concern over cable industry allegations that broadcasters are essentially requiring cable operators to carry multiple channels owned by the broadcast networks in take-it-or-leave-it bundles.

“I want to try to make it so no one with control over programs can leverage you to where you have to take some things you do not want in order to get the things you want,” Sen. Stevens said during the ACA session.

Matt Polka, ACA president and CEO, said after the session: “Sen. Stevens’ comments concerning the abuse of retransmission consent should be a wake-up call to any broadcast station that intends to force cost or content onto consumers through this outdated [retransmission consent] law.”

The ACA, which represents mostly smaller cable systems, has been lobbying vigorously for relief from retransmission consent obligations-both in Congress and with the Federal Communications Commission.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association has largely remained out of the fray because it represents major programmers and operators who come down on both sides of the issue.