McCain takes aim at pay TV bundling, OTA downgrades, sports blackouts

Pay TV subscribers who are tired of forking over money to multichannel video program distributors (MVPDs) for channels they don’t watch may get some relief if Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has his way.

On May 9, McCain introduced the Television Consumer Freedom Act of 2013, which encourages unbundling of programming so consumers can have a la carte access to the channels they wish to buy.

The legislation also would punish television broadcasters that downgrade content of their OTA service when compared to what they deliver to MVPDs so that the content available to MVPDs is preferable to what’s available OTA.

Specifically, for broadcasters that downgrade or pull their signal off air, the bill would strip them of their spectrum and authorize the FCC to auction it. The OTA provision of the bill addresses recent remarks by some broadcast executives that they may downgrade or pull their OTA signal content.

“Our country is facing a spectrum crunch, and if broadcasters who are using the public airwaves in return for meeting certain public interest obligations are going to deviate from those obligations, it is my view that we should consider if that is the most efficient use of our country’s spectrum,” said McCain in a statement released with the introduction of the bill. “It would be a distortion of this basic social compact if over-the-air viewers were treated as second-class citizens.”

As relates to unbundling, the bill knocks down regulatory barriers that have prevented cable, satellite and IPTV providers from offering video service on an a la carte basis. It also ties the availability of the compulsory copyright license to offering consumers a la carte services.

The bill also addresses sports blackout rules limiting pay TV subscribers from seeing events when they take place in their local communities but aren’t aired by a local station. The legislation proposes doing away with the sports blackout rules for events that take place in venues financed by the federal, state or local government.

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association called the legislation’s a la carte provisions “unnecessary and counterproductive.”

“As countless studies have demonstrated, subscription bundles offer a wider array of viewing options, increased programming diversity and better value than per channel options,” according to the NCTA statement.