Retrans Turf Wars

If I didn’t know better, I’d think I was in grave danger from retransmission consent. Scores of businesses recently lined up to protect me from it—or from the lack of it, depending on perspective. And here I was walking around thinking imminent threats involved only UV rays, environmental toxins, airborne viruses, terrorism, nuclear war, assorted psychopaths and the San Andreas Fault. But no!

The new American Television Alliance was formed “to ensure consumers are not harmed—or their favorite shows held hostage—in negotiations for carriage of broadcast programming.”

“OMG,” I thought to myself as a single-syllable word. “Have retrans negotiations become turf wars? Are Anne Sweeney and Brian Roberts running around my neighborhood with Glocks? That would make for awesome copy!”

The ATVA is having none of it, however. Its members intend to prevent broadcasters from “using consumers as pawns in retransmission negotiations.” That’s because the ATVA is comprised of an immaculate Good Samaritanry that includes Verizon, AT&T, Cablevision, DirecTV, Dish Network and Time War-ner Cable and others. One can rest assured their motives are entirely altruistic, unless one is Dennis Wharton of the National Association of Broadcasters.

“The notion that Time Warner and its big pay TV allies are part of a group designed ‘to protect consumers’ is about as credible as BP executives joining Greenpeace,” Wharton said in one of his more colorful pronouncements.

Greenpeace, however, did generously offer to redesign BP’s logo. No such olive branch has been extended in the current retrans snit. Broadcasters instead are urging lawmakers to refrain from changing retransmission consent rules and thereby helping cable companies “punish viewers with higher bills.” The phrase showed up in letters sent to the New York City Council and two of the state’s Congressmen. It seems the New York contingent has fallen in with the ATVA, because who doesn’t want to “protect consumers in today’s changing TV environment?”

Conjuring danger from which consumers must be protected is a cottage industry in Washington, D.C., after all. It allows politicians and lobbyists to jut their chins and feel righteous. No one really believes people are going to be injured by retransmission consent negotiations. And no one really cares. What they do care about is creating the impression that the other guy is responsible for escalating cable and satellite TV bills.

Whether or not retransmission consent rules end up being reformed, one outcome is certain. Pay TV will not get cheaper.