TV Broadcasters are “Always On” – Except When They’re Not

During Wednesday’s STELA hearing, Marci Burdick, representing  America’s TV broadcasters said, “We remain free and over the air at all times.” Of course, anyone who’s followed the debate over our outdated retransmission consent rules knows that for the vast majority of Americans, this statement is misleading and disingenuous.

For most pay-TV consumers – 90% of Americans – broadcast TV is not free and is always subject to blackouts.

In recent weeks, broadcasters have tried to spin blackouts as being created by pay-TV providers, but nothing could be further from the truth. Broadcasters hold the ultimate control over whether or not to keep a signal up and if they didn’t want blackouts, they wouldn’t exist.

Last year, as a potential hurricane was forming off the Gulf Coast, the American Television Alliance called for Media General to restore its signal so citizens could receive local news and weather information. Media General agreed to restore its signal over the weekend, proving once and for all that TV blackouts do indeed exist.

Still, broadcasters continue to claim they’re “always on” even as the Media General example proves they weren’t.

Why did Media General feel compelled to restore programming if that same programming is “always on”? Obviously, blacking out some citizens during a severe weather situation would have been totally irresponsible. Of course, TV broadcasters don’t restore the signal during tornado threats, which happen much more quickly. Regardless, it’s clear that broadcasters are on whenever they choose to be.

Nor is broadcast TV “free.” Most pay-TV consumers end up footing the increasingly outrageous fee demands of broadcasters who manipulate the retrans system. American consumers are projected to pay over $24 billion in the next five years on retransmission consent fees.

The truth is that broadcasters desperately depend on pay-TV providers to deliver their programming (and advertising) to 90% of America. When they withhold their programming (and play providers off of one another) in the interests of raising retransmission consent fees, they are blacking out viewers.

“Always on?” “Free?”

Far from it.

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