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.

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