Article: Fix broken broadcast retransmission consent system

Former Representative Jack Fields
The Hill‘s Congress Blog
November 15, 2010

Few things are more frustrating to a former Congressman than to see a law he sponsored twisted in a way that undermines its intended purposes. Unfortunately, this is precisely what has happened during the last few years with the 1992 Cable Act, and in particular, with the provisions I sponsored dealing with “retransmission consent.” These provisions require a cable operator or other video provider to obtain a broadcast station’s permission to retransmit the broadcast signal to subscribers (unless the broadcaster elects a different option called “must carry”). Our goal was to ensure that the public would retain access to local broadcast programming as cable television gained in power and influence. But today, more than ever, broadcasters are using these provisions to claim that the Act gives them license to pull their signals from video providers and their subscribers unless these providers agree to pay rapidly rising fees. In essence, broadcasters are exploiting a law designed to prevent consumers from experiencing service disruptions to justify blackouts. This just happened in the New York and Philadelphia area, where Fox blacked out its network stations to three million households during the baseball playoffs and World Series.

When Congress created retransmission consent in 1992, we had good reason to worry about the future of broadcast television. Cable providers had near-monopolies in the communities they served. Potential competitors, such as satellite providers and telephone companies, were still years away from providing video services that could match what the local cable operators were providing. And as more and more viewers removed the rabbit ears from their television sets in favor of cable wires, broadcasters became more reliant on cable providers to distribute their programming to consumers. Congress thus came to view dominant cable providers as a threat to the survival of over-the-air broadcasting.

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