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Cable industry wants FCC to require carriage during retrans disputes

Claiming there are “serious flaws in the rules governing the retransmission consent market,” Matthew Polka, president of the American Cable Association, has asked the FCC to prohibit program blackouts during retransmission consent disputes.

In a letter to FCC chairwoman Mignon Clyburn, Polka noted that the FCC prohibits retransmission blackouts during sweeps periods to accommodate broadcasters, “yet there are no comparable rules that protect consumers from losing access to broadcast signals during periods of time particularly important to them, such as immediately before and during marquee broadcast events.”

Against the backdrop of the continuing CBS blackout at Time Warner Cable, Polka said the time has come for the FCC to act on the issue.

“ACA believes fundamental reform is necessary," he said. "However, broad changes to the rules governing retransmission consent need not stand in the way of the Commission taking some more limited regulatory action now to ensure that consumers are never again left without access to local broadcast signals when disputes arise.”

He continued, “Moreover, in light of the CBS/TWC dispute, it is glaringly inconsistent and unreasonable for the Commission to have explicit rules that prohibit blackouts when they would harm broadcasters, but have no rules to prohibit such outages when they would harm consumers.”

Outlining “a narrowly tailored solution,” Polka proposed that the Commission adopt a rule mandating that broadcasters and MVPDs continue to offer a broadcast station’s signal to consumers after an existing retransmission consent agreement expires and while the terms of a new agreement are pending resolution of a dispute.

Under this proposed rule, the parties’ existing retransmission consent agreement would automatically be extended past its expiration date, and an MVPD would continue to pay the broadcaster for retransmission consent rights per such contract.

At the time that the dispute is resolved and a new agreement is signed, the prices and terms of the new agreement would retroactively apply to begin immediately after the previous agreement’s expiration date, and any required true-up of prices would be applied.

Polka noted that the proposal does not call for the FCC to side with a broadcaster or MVPD on the appropriate prices, terms and conditions of carriage for the broadcaster’s signal.

“Instead, it focuses on the narrow need to ensure consumers have continued access to broadcast stations while parties continue to negotiate,” he said.

“Adoption of this limited, straightforward and consumer-friendly reform of the Commission’s retransmission consent rules will not solve all of the problems associated with this market,” Polka said. “It would, however, help to protect viewers from the deleterious results of outdated rules which are awaiting long overdue and more comprehensive reform. The Commission has a vehicle with its pending retransmission consent rulemaking to implement regulatory changes right away, and we urge the Commission to act now.”