System Failures


Two sides fail to come to terms on a deal, are forced into a last-minute extension and fail again, leaving TV viewers facing the prospect of losing access to big-ticket programming. Meanwhile, there are pleadings from powerful legislators to keep the programming on the air.

If you believe the above is a reference to the ongoing—at least at presstime—retransmission consent dispute between WABC and Cablevision over carriage of the fl agship New York affi liate, it’s understandable. That tough negotiation drew flak from some in Washington—most notably Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). It has been ABC’s contention that it should get paid what it believes its signal is worth. That is the process Congress and the FCC established, giving broadcasters the option of electing must-carry or trying to negotiate a pay deal.

Then WABC forced the standoff: If Cablevision didn’t want to pay its price, the network would pull the plug on the programming, including the Oscars.

Sen. Kerry says this ugly back and forth—with viewers on the losing end—has been a sign of fundamental problems with the negotiation process. “I fear that this dispute is the most recent evidence that the retransmission consent regime has become outdated in the 18 years since it was crafted,” he wrote in a letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. “We need to fix the system.”

Again, anyone reading the fi rst paragraph above might think it focuses on the WABC-Cablevision retrans battle. It doesn’t. Rather, it more pointedly describes the Senate’s failure to renew the blanket license that allows satellite operators to carry distant-affiliate station signals. The Senate failed to strike a deal on a new bill and had to beg broadcasters, satellite operators and other rights holders to keep operating without a license.

At least with the WABC-Cablevision battle, the impasse was over the central issue of the value of programming. The satellite bill got hung up because a single senator, Jim Bunning of Kentucky, didn’t want to extend health insurance and unemployment benefits; the bill was bundled with unrelated extensions in the jobs bill package.

Perhaps before legislators take aim at the industry over contentious negotiations that don’t always tie themselves up in neat packages, they should keep their own House (and Senate) in order. And while we don’t like the way Congress has handled the satellite bill re-authorization, we don’t think this calls for rules mandating debates on nondiscriminatory terms or the unbundling of legislation. (Although, come to think of it….)

It would be best if, by the time the ink is dry on this page, both the satellite bill impasse and the WABC-Cablevision dispute have been resolved. But it’s only in the former case that Congress should be involved in the resolution.