Retrans Rumblings

FCC chairman Genachowski said last week commission may have to modify retransmission consent rules to prevent blackouts

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said last week the
commission may have to modify its retransmission consent
rules to prevent blackouts, prompting an immediate
metaphorical high-five from cable operators and satellite
companies long pushing for commission action.

But it was unclear whether that was “hearingspeak”—
the kind of finessed answer to a tough question
that does not necessarily mean any movement is
coming—or a signal of action to come.

The apparent revelation—the FCC’s open docket on
retrans has seen no action in a couple of years—came
during a marathon, 2½-hour FCC oversight hearing in the
Senate Commerce Committee that ranged far and wide
though never into the area of media violence, despite its
invocation twice by chairman Jay Rockefeller (D- W.Va.).

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) brought up the issue
of sports blackouts and his request to the commission
that it look into lifting its 40-year-old
blackout rules. He called them “deeply
troubling,” particularly when his constituents’
favorite teams are involved.

When Blumenthal asked the status
of the issue, Genachowski did not
address it specifically, instead steering
the question toward retransmission
consent blackouts. Those also implicate
sports, particularly during college bowl
game season; the FCC chief’s response
could give broadcasters the heebiejeebies.
“An area where [blackouts]
come up too often is in the retransmission
consent area,” Genachowski said. “It may be time to
update those provisions to reduce the chances of those
blackouts during retransmission consent negotiation.”

He didn’t commit to move toward a rulemaking proceeding,
and even took a bit off the “wow” factor for retrans
reform fans. “Our authority under the existing
statute is limited,” Genachowski said.
“This may be an area where we need to
work with the committee.”

That was sounding more like the chairman’s
traditional line on retrans, pointing
to limited authority and saying Congress
can weigh in if it wants to change that.

Cable operators and others who have
been pushing for retrans reforms were
quick to react to the hearing. The American
Television Alliance released a statement
proclaiming, “There clearly is a critical
mass of bipartisan leaders who have
concerns about outdated video regulations. The [ATA]
applauds these leaders and urges action by Congress
and the FCC to fix these regulations so they are more in
line with the significant changes that have occurred in the
video marketplace in the last 21 years.”