Stevens to hold Senate hearings on retransmission consent

The proposed must-carry requirement benefits broadcasters but raises questions about cable operators’ obligation to carry multiple program streams
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Senate Commerce Chairman Ted Stevens, (R-AK) last week pledged to hold hearings to shed light on retransmission consent.

Stevens told the American Cable Association (ACA) — referring to provisions in the 1992 Cable Act requiring cable operators to carry all over-the-air broadcast channels that none of the top four networks are carried by cable through must-carry. He said they are carried through the retransmission consent process.

The must-carry requirement benefits local broadcasters, while the transition to digital television has raised anew the question of cable operators’ obligation to carry multiple program streams. Cable operators need permission to transmit broadcasters’ signals or they are violating copyright. The 1992 Cable Act gave broadcasters the power to chose whether a given cable operator must carry their channel for free or instead pay a retransmission consent fee.

Representing smaller cable operators, ACA has taken the lead in an uphill battle to get the FCC to rein in networks’ ability to demand steep retransmission consent fees. Broadcast stations that elect retransmission consent — as opposed to must carry —negotiate privately with cable operators. Big cable operators have more negotiating leverage against broadcast networks and their affiliated stations — while ACA members said they are powerless to resist steep annual rate hikes, the National Journal reported.

Retransmission consent agreements are renewed every three years, with the latest round coming this October. All indications point to nasty disputes between broadcasters and cable operators, the report said. Several cable operators at the ACA meeting raised the prospect that contract disputes would force networks off cable television this year.

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