Retransmission consent, future of journalism on minds of FCC commissioners

Patience on Capitol Hill is wearing thin over instances of down-to-the-wire negotiations between cable operators and broadcasters over the right to retransmit broadcast signals that have angered cable subscribers and members of Congress alike, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps told an audience last month at the 2010 NAB Show.

Copps, who participated in the “Washington Face-Off” session April 13 with FCC Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Meredith Attwell-Baker as well as National Telecommunications and Information Administration Deputy Administrator and Deputy Assistant Secretary Anna Gomez, said Congress or the commission could get involved to remedy the situation without a change of course.

“Now I know folks will say, ‘Well, 90 percent of this stuff gets resolved,’ and that may be true, but that other 5 percent gets the attention of the Congress,” Copps said. “And I think if we don’t’ find a way to avoid this kind of brinksmanship, that maybe we’ll see Congress or the commission get more actively involved than we currently are right now.”

In the view of Attwell-Baker, the marketplace, which resolves most retransmission consent issues before a problem develops, “is working.” However, the commission has an obligation to look out for the interests of viewers, she said, adding, “I think there probably is room there for voluntary arbitration and mediation.”

During the discussion about retransmission consent, NAB CEO and President Gordon Smith asked the commissioners if they would be receptive to efforts by the cable and broadcast industries to develop protocols to protect viewers if negotiations break down.

Saying she endorses the concept, Clyburn added, “I think that would send out the proper signals to me.”

The commissioners also addressed where journalism is headed during today’s dramatic shifts in media consumption patterns and falling ad revenue. “Right now we have a crisis in this country, and it is a crisis of journalism,” Copps said.

Broadcasting is under “great pressure,” while newspapers are “under even greater pressure,” he said. These economic issues take a toll on the ability of news organizations to gather news, which had created a circumstance where “we have skated pretty close to denying the American people the breath and depth of information they need to make decisions for the future of the country,” he said.

The government has a role to play in making sure Americans get the news and information they need, Copps said.

However, Attwell-Baker said she opposed such efforts. “I think we can have a viable independent press,” she said. “We just need to give it time. There are entrepreneurs out there who are working on this.”

Editor’s note: The FCC’s National Broadband Plan, which calls for recouping 120MHz of TV spectrum, was also discussed during the session. To learn how the commissioners saw spectrum issues during the session, see “‘Washington Face-Off’ session reveals flaws in incentive auction proposal.

Phil Kurz

Phil Kurz is a contributing editor to TV Tech. He has written about TV and video technology for more than 30 years and served as editor of three leading industry magazines. He earned a Bachelor of Journalism and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism.