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released a statement proclaiming, “There clearly is a critical mass of bipartisan leaders who have concerns about outdated video regulations.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.”