Viewers Should Not Have to Pay “TV Tax” for “Free” Local Broadcast TV

In a recent column in the Argus Leader, Jay Huizenga, the general manager of KELO in Sioux Falls, defends the “retransmission consent” rules that allow local TV stations to demand fees from pay-TV companies, such as cable and satellite services.

Contrary to Mr. Huizenga’s portrayal, local TV stations like KELO are neither “free” nor “always on. They’re charging pay-TV providers increasingly higher fees and blacking out consumers when their demands aren’t met.

Last year, there were 127 TV blackouts around the country, more than ever before. Three involving Sioux Falls stations in just the last few years.

These fees are essentially a “TV tax” for the 90% of Americans who subscribe to pay-TV. Over the next five years, TV broadcasters around the nation will demand nearly $25 billion from pay-TV providers.

Keep in mind that KELO is owned by Media General, one of the biggest TV companies in America. Media General owns over 30 TV stations around the country.

If you’re wondering how a TV station can be owned by a large conglomerate and still claim to be “local,” you’re not alone. In some markets, one company owns two or more stations and often repeats the exact same news. Media General is currently attempting to purchase LIN Media, another big TV company. This sale would result in Media General becoming the third-biggest TV company, owning over 70 stations around the country.

Media General’s purchase of LIN will mean even less localism and diversity for viewers.

A 2011 study by Philip Napoli, director of the Donald McGannon Communication Research Center at Fordham University looked at this issue. It found that “research on local broadcasters’ provision of local news and public affairs programming provides little compelling evidence that retransmission consent revenues are being utilized by broadcasters to enhance their provision of local news and public affairs programming.”

Instead, “it appears that these revenues are being used in large part to fund the programming activities of national broadcast networks.”

Mr. Huizenga’s own column illustrates how local TV newscasters prioritize national TV programming over local news. He begins his op-ed by referencing national programming: “The Super Bowl. ‘The Amazing Race.’ ‘The Big Bang Theory.’ ‘NCIS.’” He eventually mentions “severe weather news and school closing,” but if there were truly compelling local programs that KELO was showing, don’t you think he would have led with that?

Mr. Huizenga also claims pay-TV providers are seeking “special treatment” from Congress. TV broadcasters asked Congress for “special treatment” to create retransmission consent fees back in 1992. Broadcasters were supposed to use those fees to pay for local programming, which they’re not doing.

The retransmission consent system is killing jobs as these large companies gobble up more and more stations and lay off local workers.

At the end of the day, local TV isn’t “free,” as Mr. Huizenga claims, particularly when large media conglomerates charge pay-TV providers a “TV tax.”

We urge Sen. John Thune and the rest of Congress to update our retransmission consent rules so consumers can be free of these fees and blackouts once and for all. Viewers deserve video rules written in the 21st Century.

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