Reps. Nathan Deal (R-GA) and Anna Eshoo (D-CA), the former a supporter of retransmission consent reform, have called on the National Telecommunications & Information Administration and FCC to support a "meaningful" retransmission consent quiet period and are asking for some data from the NTIA they think may support their position.
to acting NTIA head Meredith Atwell Baker and FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, a copy of which was obtained by B&C.
The pair last month
in a letter to endorse a period that would begin before the end of the year and continue for a "reasonable" period of time beyond the Feb. 17, 2009 switch to digital TV--they suggest March 1.
During that time, TV stations could not remove their over-the-air signals from cable and satellite operators' lineups. The theory is such dislocation would be confusing during the run-up to the digital switch. Broadcasters don't subscribe to that theory, but have volunteered a four-week quiet period flanking that date.
The FCC, not NTIA, is currently considering the formal petition by cable operators for a quiet period, but NTIA recently recorded an uptick in DTV-to-analog converter box coupon requests in markets affected by retransmission consent disputes between LIN TV and Time Warner and Brighthouse. The legislators say they are concerned that those requests could have come from confused viewers who "very likely would not have applied for coupons but for the fact that LIN TV's broadcast signals were dropped."
They warned that such confusion "can put unnecessary demand on the NTIA's coupon program." That could resonate with Martin, who himself has raised concerns that NTIA might not have enough money to cover all the converter box coupons as it is.
The legislators want NTIA to supply coupon request data for areas affected by the retrans disputes as well as nationwide data for comparison purposes.
An NTIA spokesman
last week that it had only run the numbers on those three markets--at the request of the American Cable Association, which put out a release on the uptick arguing for the quiet period.
NTIA could not quantify what the uptick was in those markets, and said that there might be more such increases in other markets. In fact, NTIA is expecting an increase in DTV coupons requests in all markets as the DTV transition date nears, and has even encouraged that with a new "apply, buy, and try" campaign to encourage viewers not to wait until the last minute to apply for the coupons, buy the boxes and try them out.
NTIA staff had just received the letter at press time and was still reading it. NTIA had no further comment.
The National Association of Broadcasters was not on the legislators mailing list, but it had a response to the letter:
"Broadcasters have embraced a voluntary, pro-consumer quiet period that will ensure no cable subscriber loses access to broadcast programming in the weeks leading up to and following the transition to digital TV," said NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton. "If policymakers are truly concerned about confusion that could arise from the DTV transition, they should investigate claims raised by Consumer Reports magazine alleging cable operators' use of the transition as a subterfuge for deceptively upselling consumers into higher programming tiers."
The National Cable & Telecommunications Association also weighed in. "“We applaud Representative Eshoo and Deal’s continued efforts to urge the FCC to adopt a meaningful retransmission consent quiet period to ensure that no consumer loses a broadcast signal in the critical months before the broadcasters’ February 17 digital TV transition," said NCTA President Kyle McSlarrow. "Many retransmission consent agreements expire at the end of 2008; the NAB’s proposal to commence a quiet period only in early February 2009 therefore is nothing more than a hollow gesture. The digital transition will be challenging enough without burdening consumers with ill-timed retransmission consent disputes.”