A New Term for Retrans

Scott R. Flick

Posted September 16, 2013

By Scott R. Flick

Today's exploration in vocabulary:

INTRANSIGENT: characterized by refusal to compromise or to abandon an extreme position or attitude : uncompromising <intransigent in their opposition> <an intransigent attitude> (from Merriam-Webster.com).

RETRANSIGENT: characterized by an insistent belief that negotiations which inevitably result in a signed retransmission agreement with less than a 0.01% chance of viewer disruption are 'broken' and demand immediate intervention by Congress <he was retransigent in his refusal to negotiate terms> (from CommLawCenter.com).

In the aftermath of the CBS/Time Warner Cable retransmission deal, I noted that one legacy of that negotiation would be lessened concern by future negotiators of finding themselves in a three way negotiation, with the FCC being the third wheel in the room. Since that time, several interesting developments have emerged. First, the Media Daily News reported that a Time Warner Cable representative revealed that the FCC actively discouraged Time Warner from filing a retrans complaint against CBS, indicating that the agency did not just passively decline to intervene, but sought to avoid being drawn into the middle of the negotiation ("don't call us, we'll call you!). If true, that puts an exclamation point on the conclusion that the FCC is none too interested in being drawn into retrans negotiations.

MVPDs apparently heard that message as well. They redoubled their efforts on Capitol Hill to have Congress change retrans law, running an ad in Politico aimed at members of Congress and making sure that a discussion of retransmission negotiations occupied an inordinately large portion of two hearings in the House of Representatives last week regarding reauthorization of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA). STELA is the law that permits carriage of distant broadcast signals by Satellite TV providers until the end of 2014. A bill to extend that authority is deemed by most to be must-pass legislation, meaning that retrans reform advocates are hoping to use it as a vehicle to modify retrans laws. That is a long shot effort, but not nearly as daunting as attempting to pass a standalone retrans bill.

Still, that did not prevent Representative Eshoo, who has been sympathetic to the pleas of MVPDs in the past, from introducing draft legislation last week titled The Video CHOICE (Consumers Have Options in Choosing Entertainment) Act. As described by its sponsor, the bill, among other things:

  • "Gives the FCC explicit statutory authority to grant interim carriage of a television broadcast station during a retransmission consent negotiation impasse."
  • "Ensures that a consumer can purchase cable television service without subscribing to the broadcast stations electing retransmission consent."
  • "Prohibits a television broadcast station engaged in a retransmission consent negotiation from making their owned or affiliated cable programming a condition for receiving broadcast programming."
  • "Instructs the FCC to examine whether the blocking of a television broadcast station's owned or affiliated online content during a retransmission consent negotiation constitutes a failure to negotiate in 'good faith.' "

At one of last week's hearings, Representative Eshoo appeared to concede that the bill had little chance of passage, indicating it was "a series of ideas intended to spur constructive and actionable debate on ways to improve the video marketplace for video content creators, pay-TV providers and, most importantly, consumers."

However, the bill demonstrates why government involvement is more complicated than proponents of retrans reform might assert. For example, regarding the requirement that viewers be able to subscribe to cable without subscribing to retrans stations, if the reason for changing the law is to ensure consumers are able to get broadcast programming over their cable system during retrans negotiations, giving consumers the right to not get the broadcast programming at any time over their cable system is not very helpful. In fact, this provision seems to concede that consumers can just use an antenna for broadcast programming rather than rely on their cable system, and since that is the case, these same consumers can just use an antenna to avoid any retrans-based disruptions, obviating the need for the law in the first place.

Because that result is so obviously illogical, I have to assume that this provision is instead aimed at preventing the unfairness of consumers being charged for a broadcast channel they aren't receiving from their cable provider during a retrans disruption. That, however, has nothing to do with the retrans negotiation itself, and the stated provision wouldn't fix that problem. If the retrans agreement has expired and the cable system therefore isn't carrying the broadcast channel, the cable system also isn't paying the broadcaster for retransmission. As a result, any money paid by subscribers for broadcast content they aren't receiving is merely an economic windfall for the cable system. If that is the bill's concern, the solution is to require MVPDs to issue subscriber refunds instead of pocketing the cash. Interfering with negotiations intended to put an end to that inequitable subscriber scenario would actually be counterproductive, as it merely causes the inequity to be extended longer still.

The provision prohibiting bundled negotiations has an even simpler flaw--if broadcasters are prohibited from accepting carriage of their cable networks as a form of compensation for granting retrans consent, they will be forced to shift to requesting all-cash compensation. Doing that, however, would increase a cable operator's out of pocket program costs while eliminating a currently available avenue for bringing negotiations to a successful conclusion. The result would be more drawn-out and contentious all-cash negotiations that would serve to increase subscription fees, precisely the opposite of the bill's intent.

Of course, the provision of the bill that has drawn the most attention is the first one, which would allow the FCC to mandate continued carriage of a broadcast station during retrans negotiations. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see the flaws in that idea; the big one being that retrans negotiations would never end since the MVPD has no incentive to agree to any deal as long as it can continue to retransmit the programming at the prior subscriber rate (or for that matter at any arbitrary fee that is less than what it would pay in an arm's length negotiation). To try to solve that problem, the law would need to create some methodology for determining when FCC-imposed retransmission should end if no deal is reached. The logical point in time would be when negotiations cease. However, all such a law would accomplish is to move the time of the retrans disruption to a different date, while incentivizing broadcasters to formally declare negotiations broken off (most likely because the law incentivized MVPDs to negotiate as slowly as possible in the first place by granting forced retransmission). Such incentives merely encourage arbitrary disruptions in the negotiations, making it more difficult to promptly complete negotiations, and causing uncertainty, expense, and aggravation for everyone.

An alternative to that approach would be to limit the FCC's authority to impose forced retransmission under such a law to a fixed period (e.g., one month), but all that would do is shift any program disruption by a month. In other words, the industry would just move from three-year retransmission agreements to two-year-and-eleven-months agreements that are followed by a one-month FCC-imposed retrans period. In either case, if a retrans disruption was going to occur because the parties couldn't agree on price, then the disruption is going to occur no matter how the legislation is written.

The unavoidable truth is that the rare retrans disruption doesn't occur because the parties didn't begin negotiating early enough to get a deal done; it occurs because the parties can't agree on price and won't change their views on pricing until the pressures of a retrans disruption are upon them. In the end, private contractual negotiations are about agreeing on the value of an item to be conveyed, and if the parties can't agree on that, a transaction doesn't happen. All the king's horses and all the king's men can't change that. To think otherwise is merely to be retransigent.