Sweep it out

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We have some unfinished business from that who-pulled-the-plug fiasco involving Time Warner and Disney last month. As you'll recall, Time Warner decided to play hard ball in its troubled retransmission consent negotiation with Disney by yanking the ABC-owned stations from its cable systems in seven markets. About 3.5 million subscribers lost the privilege of watching Regis and lesser ABC programming for a day and a half before public opinion forced Time Warner to restore the signals. Resumed negotiations yielded a comprehensive agreement a few weeks later.

At the height of the dispute, Disney asked the FCC to enforce an obscure rule that bars cable operators from dropping broadcast signals during a sweeps month. The FCC dutifully complied, effectively siding with Disney in the larger retrans dealmaking.

That rule has got to go. For retransmission consent to work, broadcasters must be free to deny carriage of their signals, and cable operators must be free to drop signals if they cannot come to terms, whether it's sweeps time or not. In other words, the FCC must stay out of retrans negotiations, even if it is invited in by one of the parties. Eliminating the sweeps rule would be a good start to that end.

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