System Failures3/11/2010 06:16:00 AM Eastern
Two sides fail to come to terms on a deal, are forced
into a last-minute extension and fail again, leaving
TV viewers facing the prospect of losing access
to big-ticket programming. Meanwhile, there are
pleadings from powerful legislators to keep the
programming on the air.
If you believe the above is a reference to the ongoing—at
least at presstime—retransmission consent dispute between
WABC and Cablevision over carriage of the fl agship New
York affi liate, it’s understandable. That tough negotiation drew
flak from some in Washington—most notably Sen. John Kerry
(D-Mass.). It has been ABC’s contention that it should get paid
what it believes its signal is worth. That is the process Congress
and the FCC established, giving broadcasters the option of
electing must-carry or trying to negotiate a pay deal.
Then WABC forced the standoff: If Cablevision didn’t want
to pay its price, the network would pull the plug on the programming,
including the Oscars.
Sen. Kerry says this ugly back and forth—with viewers on
the losing end—has been a
sign of fundamental problems
with the negotiation process.
“I fear that this dispute is the
most recent evidence that the
retransmission consent regime
has become outdated in the 18
years since it was crafted,” he
wrote in a letter to FCC Chairman
Julius Genachowski. “We
need to fix the system.”
Again, anyone reading the
fi rst paragraph above might think it focuses on the WABC-Cablevision
retrans battle. It doesn’t. Rather, it more pointedly describes
the Senate’s failure to renew the blanket license that allows satellite
operators to carry distant-affiliate station signals. The Senate failed to
strike a deal on a new bill and had to beg broadcasters, satellite operators
and other rights holders to keep operating without a license.
At least with the WABC-Cablevision battle, the impasse was over
the central issue of the value of programming. The satellite bill got
hung up because a single senator, Jim Bunning of Kentucky, didn’t
want to extend health insurance and unemployment benefits; the bill
was bundled with unrelated extensions in the jobs bill package.
Perhaps before legislators take aim at the industry over contentious
negotiations that don’t always tie themselves up in neat
packages, they should keep their own House (and Senate) in order.
And while we don’t like the way Congress has handled the
satellite bill re-authorization, we don’t think this calls for rules
mandating debates on nondiscriminatory terms or the unbundling
of legislation. (Although, come to think of it….)
It would be best if, by the time the ink is dry on this page,
both the satellite bill impasse and the WABC-Cablevision
dispute have been resolved. But it’s only in the former case that
Congress should be involved in the resolution.