Cable Chief Takes on FCC, Retransmission

Mar 16, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Kyle McSlarrow, president-CEO of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, is accusing FCC chairman Kevin Martin of tilting against cable in several agency proceedings because of cable’s unwillingness to unbundle its channel packages and offer channels a la carte.

Mr. McSlarrow also confirmed that NCTA is abandoning its neutrality on retransmission consent issues and lobbying to get cable providers more leeway on payments to TV stations. Until several weeks ago, NCTA had stayed out of the retransmission fight because its members include some media companies as well as cable providers. His comments were the first confirmation of the group’s switch.

It was the most vocal attack yet on Mr. Martin from the cable industry.

Mr. McSlarrow suggested the cable industry has seen dramatic, even “amazing” advances that the Federal Communications Commission should be highlighting and striving to encourage; instead, the FCC is proposing new burdens on cable. Asked if he thought it was because of a la carte pricing, he responded, “Yes.”

At a briefing Thursday in Washington, Mr. McSlarrow told reporters, “From the point in time we had a fight over a la carte to now, the path chosen is not one that I think reflects the realities of the marketplace. I don’t think it’s rocket science.”

To demonstrate the cable industry’s progress, Mr. McSlarrow pointed to the nearly 10 million customers using cable for phone service, the increase in availability and speed of broadband and the increase in the share of cable customers getting digital cable.

“I would expect [the FCC] to make note of it. I would hope for a vision that says, ‘How do we keep all that going? How do we drive innovation to keep every job in America?’ Instead, what I’m seeing is regulatory retreads,” he said, citing several FCC proposals.

Mr. Martin had no comment.

Mr. McSlarrow said negotiations involving Sinclair Broadcast Group last summer and continuing with Mediacom Communications this winter crystallized NCTA’s decision that it should be part of the discussion. He said the organization’s biggest concern is that current retransmission negotiations aren’t fair.

“When I see an argument that ascribes retransmission consent purely and simply to free-market negotiations, that is complete nonsense,” he said.

The current “must-carry” law requiring cable providers but not satellite providers to carry local broadcasters creates a “heads I win, tails you lose regime,” he added.

Broadcasters “walk into a negotiation knowing that whatever the negotiation is about, their carriage is guaranteed by law.”

“I’m not racing to the Hill asking for legislation, but we want to be part of the conversation and want something that brings parity with satellite in terms of getting rid of the must tier requirement or something that strengthens the good-faith [negotiation] requirement that already is part of law,” he added.

Mr. McSlarrow also questioned why the FCC was moving forward again on limiting cable ownership. The FCC in 1992 barred any one company from reaching more than 30% of cable and satellite customers, and has held to that limit although a court ordered it reconsidered. Comcast’s announcement that it plans to challenge the cap prompted the FCC to circulate a proposal to justify the cap to the court.

Mr. McSlarrow said the cap was unneeded given the number of additional video sources created since the cap was originally adopted.

(Editor: Baumann)