Editorial: Tornado Watch

Video regulation was getting a lot of attention on Capitol
Hill last week, but major reform is no slam dunk.

Legislators are in agreement that
the regs are outdated. But whether
that means deregulating, applying new
rules to new services, or some mixture
remains the challenge for anyone
looking for a Telecom Act rewrite.

As expected, the renewal of the
Satellite Television Extension and Localism
Act (STELA) has become the
vehicle of choice for raising retransmission
consent reform issues.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) said last
week that she is working on a retrans
reform draft bill, one that would actually
go a long way toward blunting
some of the leverage broadcasters have
gained through having some of the
most popular video content around.
But the congresswoman said the bill
was meant to be a series of suggestions
to provoke a robust debate—not that
there wasn’t going to be one anyway.

In fact, “debate” may be too genteel
a word. Broadcast and cable operators
took off the gloves and traded rhetorical
blows—as well as print ads—
in Washington newspapers, taking aim
at each other.

The fight isn’t pretty, but it isn’t unexpected.
These are large companies with
huge financial interests, facing seismic
changes in a marketplace governed, or
in some cases not governed, by legacy
regs that were drafted at a time when
cellphones were the size of bricks. It
will be interesting to see how the fight
plays out both in D.C. and beyond.

We have some advice for both sides.
Try to keep the messaging consistent
both on Wall Street and in Washington,
and don’t forget to keep consumers in
the conversation. If there is one takeaway
from the FCC and Congress on
retrans, it’s that they want to see a clear
demonstration that consumers’ welfare,
not just bottom lines and eventual deals,
are part of the big-money equation.

One concern that exhibited itself
last week during the Hill hearings was
that if broadcasting is a vital link to
emergency warnings and news about
hurricanes, tornadoes and the like,
blackouts suggest broadcasters are OK
with their viewers losing access to that
critical info in the interests of striking
new business deals. They’re not.

The broadcaster response should
have immediately been that while
blackouts do serve the business purpose
of setting a deadline that often
forces negotiation, public safety trumps
any of those business considerations.

So, we recommend that broadcasters
make that point clear to Capitol Hill
ASAP, perhaps pointing to the much-invoked-in-Washington CBS-Time Warner
Cable blackout, during which CBS
and Time Warner agreed to a truce
long enough to air a couple of high-profile
candidate debates.

Neither side has a corner on consumer-
friendliness, but both should not only
invoke consumers in their arguments,
but also mean it when they say the people
who actually pay the bills for their
services are important to them.