Category Archives: Blog Posts

Trust But Verify on New Broadcast Standard

Next week federal regulators at the FCC will consider a new broadcast standard called ATSC 3.0, the so-called “Next Gen” TV standard.   If implemented properly, the Next Gen transition could have some important benefits to consumers, including access to higher quality video, immersive sound and more efficient use of broadcast spectrum.  Technological innovation is a win for consumers, but new broadcast standards should not increase consumer costs or include new mandates on pay TV providers.

It’s been almost a decade since the transition to Digital HD broadcast signals.  But whereas the DTV received years of planning, intense media scrutiny and two separate acts of Congress to implement, the ATSC 3.0 transition is occurring largely unnoticed.  While the transition may improve broadcast service, it could also harm consumers if not managed properly.

In previous filings we asked the Commission to ensure two overriding policy objectives in regard to the Next Generation Broadcast transition: that the transition is completely voluntary for all participants, and that the new standard does not harm others in the television ecosystem by imposing new cost burdens on consumers and other participants.

Decisions impacting millions of American consumers require a ‘trust but verify’ approach.  We look forward to working with the Commission to ensure the new broadcast standards do not result in higher bills for consumers, more broadcaster initiated blackouts and other loss of service.

Broadcasters do not operate in a vacuum, and they do not have the right to impose new costs or burdens on consumers and other market participants.  ATVA has been working with the FCC on these important issues on behalf of all TV viewers.  We will continue to work with the Commission to protect consumers from harm during the transition.

Broadcasters can transition to ATSC 3.0 without causing any of these problems—but only if the FCC takes affirmative steps to protect consumers from harm.

Setting the Record Straight on ATSC 3.0: Put Consumers First

The American Television Alliance (ATVA) for the past five years has been the leading voice for consumers in the battle against skyrocketing retrans fees and egregious broadcaster TV blackouts.  In a recent filing with the Federal Communications Commission we raised a series of questions about a proposal known as ATSC 3.0 that could significantly raise the costs to consumers of receiving broadcast television either over-the-air or from a pay-TV provider.

If implemented properly, the proposal in question could have some important benefits to consumers, including access to higher quality 4K video and immersive sound, and more efficient spectrum.  This innovative technology is a good thing for consumers, and ATVA isn’t trying to stop it. In fact, ATVA is working with the FCC to weigh all of the significant factors, because that’s exactly what Americans deserve.

ATVA is just the latest in a wide range of diverse groups to weigh in on the new standard, including the National Association of Broadcasters own members, who have publicly expressed concerns about moving forward with the new standard.

Consumer advocate groups such as Public Knowledge have called on broadcasters to continue meeting their public interest obligations, regardless of changes to the technology used to deliver signals.  Other groups have also expressed concerns related to ATSC 3.0 recently.  Andrew Langer, President of the Institute for Liberty notes that the “first nationwide upgrade from analog to digital in 2009 wound up costing the federal government $1.3 billion in vouchers for low-income families.” Timothy Lee with the Center for Individual Freedom points out that “consumers who currently receive local stations over the air or via cable or satellite providers suddenly would face the possibility of incurring the cost of new equipment in order to receive the new signal.”

In addition to the fees that consumers could incur as a result of purchasing new equipment, ATSC 3.0 carriage could be leveraged by broadcasters to extract yet even more retrans fees that could be passed on to consumers.  Those concerns and the others impacting access and consumer cost burdens should all give us pause to consider their full impact.

Fees charged by broadcasters to transmit what is supposed to be free over the air signals are the fastest rising part of consumers’ TV bills.  Broadcasters have increased total retransmission consent fees more than 22,000 percent since 2005, according to publicly available data.  SNL Kagan, for example, predicts that retransmission consent fees will total more than $11.6 billion in the next five years.

We have to take the Ronald Reagan approach in this case: “Trust but verify.”  This is a very big deal for everyone who watches TV in the United States and will have major implications for consumer costs and access.  And for this reason, ATVA has pledged to work with the FCC to ensure that costs associated with the transition to ATSC 3.0 do not fall at the feet of consumers.

We welcome a conversation with the NAB and federal regulators to address the concerns for consumers that we put forward in our recent filing.

Trent Duffy is the National Spokesman for the American Television Alliance, a coalition of consumer groups, cable, satellite, telephone companies and independent programmers raising awareness about why TV blackouts are happening and what can be done to stop them.  

FCC Poised to Take Action to Protect Consumers from Blackouts

With consumer TV blackouts surging and retrans fees increasing at unsustainable rates, Congress recognized that the existing rules and regulations governing retransmission consent negotiations are not working.  In legislation passed at the end of 2014, Congress directed the FCC to commence a rulemaking to examine what constitutes “good faith” in retransmission consent negotiations.

ATVA filed its reply comments today, responding to the National Association of Broadcasters’ audacious suggestion that “the retransmission consent market has finally begun to work.”

The retrans system is working for broadcast executives, who are lining their pockets with unjust fees for free TV.  But for the more than 12 million American households – 1-in-8 Pay TV subscribers – that have been impacted by a TV blackout in 2015, the system is broken.

The cash grab for retrans dollars is driving the TV blackout epidemic.  Retrans fees have climbed 40 percent each of the past three years – costs that are ultimately borne by consumers.  At the same time, consumer blackouts have also spiked.  Indeed, the Wall Street Journal reported today that “TV Viewers Endured Record Number of Blackouts in 2015.”  Broadcasters pulled the plug on American consumers 193 times in 2015, a new single-calendar year record.

Indeed, In the 45 days since initial comments on the rulemaking were due, broadcasters blacked out their signal 17 more times.  So far in 2016, broadcasters have pulled the plug on consumers in 14 markets, holding programming like NFL playoff games and the Golden Globe Awards hostage.  Unfortunately, this is business as usual for broadcasters.

In the reply comments, more than 3,300 consumers affected by broadcaster blackouts voiced their opinions to the FCC.  Below are a few examples of what outraged viewers are saying:

  • “I am afraid as right now I have no local news. What if there is a real security issue for the nation or my local area?  I will not know.  This leaves me very vulnerable. I am shocked this is happening in our great USA.”
  • “We pay for free TV stations on a monthly basis therefore why do they have the option to blackout stations that are on air for free if you don’t subscribe to a cable or satellite provider. ARE WE BEING HELD HOSTAGE FOR SUBSCRIBING TO CABLE/SATELLITE PROVIDERS. WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE ELECTION DEBATES ARE HELD AND WE ARE NOT ALLOWED TO FOLLOW CANDIATES.”[sic]
  • “Forget about losing our favorite television stations. The consumer is being blocked from local news, for which there is no excuse. Should a local emergency arise, blocking local channels could result in bodily harm and property damage which would lead to litigation and rightfully so. This simply has to stop. There IS an obligation to the consumer. It is a right and not a privilege to view my local stations, particularly when I am paying for it.”
  • “I work hard for my money and pay my bill to the satellite company so my retired dad can watch his favorite shows during the day, and I can come home in the evening and enjoy some favorite programs myself, including Wheel of Fortune and NCIS. Thanks to some broken down communications over which I had no control, we can no longer watch these and many other programs shown on our local channel 11 (CBS). It is not right for the consumer to be harmed due to the greed of large companies playing hardball with their contracts. Please fix these issues so we can get back to enjoying the programs we want.”

The Congress gave the FCC new, specific authority to address retransmission consent abuse.  ATVA is confident that after the FCC completes its thorough examination of the video marketplace, it will agree with our conclusions: the retransmission consent system is broken and the FCC can and should take concrete, decisive steps to fix the situation and protect innocent consumers.

FACT CHECK: Broadcasters Claim Retrans System is Working. 12 million consumer blackouts prove otherwise

In comments to the FCC this week, the National Association of Broadcasters had the audacity to suggest that “the retransmission consent market has finally begun to work.”  If you are a broadcast executive, lining your pockets with unjust fees for free TV, of course you think the system is working.

But what about the 12 million American households – 1-in-8 Pay TV subscribers – that have been impacted by a TV blackout in 2015?  Or the fact that retrans fees have climbed 40% each of the past three years – costs that are ultimately borne by consumers?  The retrans system is decidedly not working for the American television consumer.

Not only are the retrans fees demanded by broadcasters skyrocketing, the number of blackouts in 2015 set a record.  TV blackouts caused by broadcasters are out of control.   In 2010 there were only eight blackouts.  Less than five years later, we’ve already had 189 blackouts.

NAB will do everything in its power to change the subject and distract policymakers and consumers in order to protect their monopolies and the retrans gravy train.  The simple fact is that there are at least three Pay TV options for consumers in every market – and in many instances four providers – unlike the broadcast affiliates which operate as monopolies and hide behind government handouts and protections from competition.

The current retrans system isn’t working.  Broadcasters need a reality check.  Congress asked the FCC to take a look at this issue for a reason: it’s broken.

Broadcasters’ Hypocrisy on Royalties Reaches New Heights

In recent weeks, broadcasters have intensified their campaign to lobby Congress to prevent any compensation to artists whose songs are played on local radio. They have found several cosponsors willing to sign onto their Orwellian-named Local Radio Freedom Act.

It’s truly stunning that broadcasters can keep a straight face as they tell musicians, “You’ll get nothing and like it.”

After all, as broadcasters continue to demand that musicians be grateful for the exposure that radio gives them, they at the same time, insist that they’re not being fairly compensated by pay-TV providers for broadcast programming.

A Nielsen has found, “more than 95 percent of Americans” watch TV via cable, satellite or IPTV. So if promotion is so important to musicians, then shouldn’t the broadcasters be thrilled with reaching 95 percent of the U.S. TV audience.  Especially when it’s incredibly difficult to watch broadcast TV via an antenna.

As broadcasters claim that paying musicians will result in lost jobs and call royalties an “unfair tax,” they’re demanding bigger and bigger retransmission consent fees. In recent days some of the biggest broadcasters have bragged to investors about their increasing quarterly earnings due to higher retransmission consent fees.  CBS Les Moonves – who famously said of royalties to musicians, “The idea that we have to pay them to put their music on our radio stations is absurd” – even boasted about the reverse retransmission consent coming back to New York.

Moonves may think performance royalties are absurd, but he has no problem demanding them from pay-TV customers. Could broadcasters like Moonves be any more hypocritical?

DEAR BROADCASTERS, CAN WE FINALLY DISCUSS RETRANSMISSION CONSENT REFORM?

For years, broadcasters have tried to delay any meaningful retransmission consent reform. There’s wide, bipartisan consensus that the current system isn’t working and needs to be reformed. With skyrocketing retrans fees and blackouts, something has to change.

During two years’ worth of discussions on Capitol Hill about the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act Reauthorization (STELAR), the broadcasters repeatedly insisted that STELAR wasn’t the appropriate vehicle for retransmission consent reform.

In August, then-Chairman Rockefeller and Ranking Member Thune introduced an innovative bipartisan proposal called “Local Choice,” that let consumers decide which local TV stations they wish to pay for. (ATVA continues to support this proposal.)

At the time, broadcasters howled that there wasn’t enough time for Congress to consider Local Choice.

“This proposal represents a significant rewrite of the Communications Act. Given the shortness of time between now and the end of the Congressional session, we question whether there is sufficient time for key committees in Congress to give this proposal the thorough review that is warranted,” said National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton.

Local Choice was eventually removed from STELAR.

As Congress considers an overhaul of the Communications Act, there is ample time for a thorough examination of retransmission consent, Local Choice, and other video reforms. After all, broadcasters themselves said they’d support such conversations.

“As to any other broader changes to broadcasting rules, NAB firmly believes those should be debated as part of the comprehensive Communications Act update, recently launched by Chairmen Upton and Walden,” said then-NAB Board Member Marci Burdick in testimony last March.

She also stated: “If your goal is regulatory parity between the various video platforms seated at this table, a comprehensive examination in the Communications Act update is the only way to achieve it.”

So what do you say, broadcasters? Can we finally get started talking about retransmission consent reform? Or were those just disingenuous stall tactics?

TabletTV Perfectly Illustrates Broadcasters’ Hypocrisy

More proof that “free TV” is anything but “free”…

Broadcaster group TVFreedom announced the addition of a new member, TabletTV, a company that makes essentially what is a TV antenna for tablet devices. This follows on the heels of TVFreedom’s publicity stunt with another member, Antennas Direct, to pass out enormous “free” antennas.

Consumers who want “free” TV using TabletTV only have to plunk down $90 to hook up one tablet. Each device a consumer wants to use will require a new antenna.

TabletTV is actually owned by Granite Broadcasting and a technology company. Meaning that after broadcasters sued Aereo out of existence, they created their own version, allowing them to pocket all the money that consumers have to pay for “free” TV.

It is virtually impossible to watch broadcast TV without buying some sort of external antenna. Broadcasters themselves apparently have to rely on some serious rooftop hardware just to watch local TV at their Washington headquarters.

It’s time for broadcasters to stop the “free” TV charade. Pay-TV consumers will have to pay $25 billion over the next five years to broadcasters for “free” TV. And anyone else will have to pay for a special antenna just to receive a basic signal. There’s nothing “free” about “free TV.”

By the way, is there anything more outdated than TV antennas? And yet broadcasters are doubling down on them?

TV broadcasters can dress up 1950’s technology in 21st Century clothes, but they’re still doing anything they can to stop real video innovation.

 

Scalise Lauds House Passage of STELA Reauthorization

WASHINGTON, D.C. – House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) today released the following statement regarding House passage of H.R. 4572, the Satellite Television Access Reauthorization Act.

“I commend my colleagues in the House for passing this much-needed bipartisan legislation that provides certainty to 1.5 million satellite consumers nationwide at risk of losing their broadcast TV programming and modernizes some of the outdated laws governing today’s video marketplace,” Rep. Scalise said. “Over the last several decades, communications and entertainment technology has evolved at a rapid pace, while the laws and regulations governing those technologies have remained relatively unchanged. This legislation is an important first step toward creating a truly competitive 21st century video marketplace for American consumers and all stakeholders.

“I enjoyed working with Chairmen Upton and Walden, and ranking members Waxman and Eshoo on a number of targeted reforms in this bill and I thank them and the leaders of the Senate Commerce Committee for including them in this bipartisan agreement. I urge the Senate to pass this legislation without delay.”

Eshoo Statement on STELAR Compromise

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Today, Congresswoman Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.), Ranking Member of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee, submitted the following statement for the record on the House floor regarding a compromise with the Senate Commerce Committee on the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act of 2014:

“Mr. Speaker, I rise today in support of H.R. 5728, the STELA Reauthorization Act of 2014.

“Nearly four months ago, the House passed legislation to reauthorize the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act of 2010 (STELA). The language before the House today reflects a compromise reached with the leadership of the Senate Commerce Committee and paves the way for an extension of STELA prior to the expiration of the statute on December 31, 2014.

“Like the bill passed by voice vote in July, H.R. 5728 reauthorizes STELA for a period of five years, ensuring that approximately 1.5 million satellite subscribers can continue accessing broadcast television signals. Reflecting my belief that our video laws are outdated and in some cases are even being abused, H.R. 5728 requires the FCC to re-examine its ‘good faith’ rules to ensure retransmission consent negotiations are conducted fairly and in a timely manner.

“To better understand how retransmission consent fees impact a consumer’s monthly bill, H.R. 5728 requires the FCC to include aggregate data as part of its annual report on cable rates. This provision will bring about much needed transparency because retransmission consent fees are estimated to rise from $4.3 billion this year to an estimated whopping $5.1 billion in 2015.

“H.R. 5728 also includes a provision I strongly supported during committee debate to ensure broadcasters cannot team up against pay-TV providers for leverage during retransmission consent negotiations. This is an important step toward rebalancing the playing field and ultimately protecting consumers from unacceptable blackouts and increased rates.

“Finally, H.R. 5728 improves on language included in the bill adopted in July by delaying repeal of the cable set-top box ‘integration ban’ by one year and establishing a stakeholder working group tasked with developing a successor solution. Importantly, this provision does not negate a cable operator’s obligation to promote the competitive availability of set-top boxes under Section 629 of the Communications Act. While I continue to believe repeal of the ban should be conditioned on an industry-wide adoption of a successor to the CableCARD, this is a compromise I support. With an eye to the future, we can fulfill a goal I set out to achieve nearly 20 years ago and that is to give consumers an alternative to having to rent a set-top box from their local cable company every month.

“For all these reasons, I urge my colleagues to join me in supporting H.R. 5728.”

New SNL Kagan Projections Show Retransmission Consent Fees Spiraling Out of Control

Less than a year after their last report on retransmission consent fee rates, SNL Kagan is already back with a new report showing that broadcasters’ will continue to extract retransmission consent fees at an alarming rate.

SNL Kagan’s revised projections indicate broadcasters will take in $9.3 billion for broadcast channels by 2020. That’s almost double the $4.9 billion they are already expected to take by the end of 2014. Though broadcasters charge pay-TV providers directly for their programming, the cost ultimately gets passed through to consumers in their monthly cable or satellite bill.

Even as Congress has finally acknowledged that the retransmission consent system needs to be updated, broadcasters do not seem to be slowing down their billion-dollar cash grab.

SNL Kagan reports the trend of “reverse retransmission consent” is also on the rise, with such fees projected to hit $1.53 billion in 2015 and $3.22 billion in 2020. “Reverse retransmission consent” refers to the money paid by local TV to the Big  4 broadcast networks (CBS, FOX, ABC and NBC) for national programming like The Voice, Scandal and Survivor.  The huge increase in “reverse” fees shows just how much broadcasters have twisted the intent of the 1992 Cable Act, which intended that retransmission fees would be spent on local programming for the benefit of the communities served by local TV stations. Now the rise in retrans fees isn’t driven by localism at all—instead it’s driven by broadcasters’ desire for a new revenue stream and is funneled straight back to the big networks to pay for expensive primetime programming.

Overall, the SNL Kagan report shows that consumers will continue to lose when it comes to retransmission consent—paying billions for “free” programming that is as “local” as a fast food meal and for programming that may be blacked out depending on how negotiations are going for broadcasters.

The reforms proposed in Satellite Television Access and Viewer Rights Act (STAVRA) are the first step Congress may take to begin curbing fees, but as the SNL Kagan report indicates, protecting consumers from the harms of retransmission consent is a much bigger challenge, especially considering broadcasters’ repeated attempts to obfuscate the issue and stop any changes. Congress and the FCC need to push for bigger, more comprehensive reforms in order to truly bring our video rules into the 21st Century and protect viewers before broadcasters burden them with billions more in fees.