CBS/Time Warner Deal Marks the Beginning of Retrans Version 3.0

Scott R. Flick

Posted September 4, 2013

By Scott R. Flick

When CBS and Time Warner announced Monday they had ended their month-long standoff over retransmission of CBS programming on Time Warner cable systems, the announcement brought a sigh of relief from Time Warner subscribers, particularly the NFL fans among them, and the usual press statements putting each party's best spin on the highly confidential result. However, the real legacy of these negotiations will be to alter how retrans agreements are negotiated in the future, and the somewhat surprising result will be less, not more, retrans blackouts.

When a change in the law in 1992 gave broadcasters the right to negotiate with cable system operators wishing to resell their programming to the public, the idea was to balance the playing field between cable networks, which relied on both ad revenue and a share of cable subscriber fees, and local broadcast stations, which had only ad revenue to support their operations. Prior to that time, broadcasters had effectively subsidized competition from cable because cable system operators could resell broadcast programming without paying for the underlying content, and then use the profits to launch and invest in cable networks that competed with broadcasters for both programming and advertising. These economics are what initiated the migration of sports programming from broadcasting to cable.

In the early retrans negotiations, which I'll refer to here as Retrans Version 1.0, cable still had local monopolies, leaving broadcasters in the awkward position of attempting to negotiate with a party whose only "competition" was the broadcaster's free signal. If the broadcaster's programming disappeared from the local cable system, subscribers couldn't leave for a new provider. Their only option was to put up an antenna and continue to be a subscriber in order to receive non-broadcast content. Under those circumstances, cable operators didn't see any reason to pay money for the right to resell broadcast programming--they were the only resellers in town. The result was very few retransmission blackouts, as broadcasters knew that dropping off of the only cable system in town would hurt the broadcaster a lot more than the cable operator.

Unable to obtain money for retrans rights, the compensation broadcasters typically received for permitting retransmission of their signal was the right to program additional channels on the cable system. This cost the cable operator little to nothing while providing it with yet more free content from the broadcaster, making it an easy "give" in retrans negotiations. Ultimately, however, it ended up providing the public with its first great benefit from retransmission negotiations--the launch of a plethora of diverse new program services that not only developed into some of today's most popular cable networks, but provided an alternative to existing cable networks that were largely owned by the cable systems themselves.

Retrans Version 2.0 commenced after Congress passed the 1999 Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act, which finally allowed satellite TV to carry local broadcast signals. As a TV service wanting to be competitive to cable, satellite TV operators knew they needed to provide local broadcast signals and fought hard to persuade Congress to change the law to make that a reality. However, lacking the monopoly status enjoyed by most cable systems at the time, satellite TV operators understood they couldn't replicate the strongarm negotiating tactics that had been employed so successfully by cable operators. Instead, they agreed to pay broadcasters money for the right to retransmit broadcast content, allowing them to attract subscribers away from cable and ultimately end cable's monopoly. For the first time, broadcasters had competing multichannel providers vying for the right to resell their content to subscribers. As satellite TV's market share grew, cable operators needed to ensure continued access to the most popular programming on their systems to fend off that competitive threat, and grudgingly began paying for the right to resell broadcast programming as well.

While you might think these competitive developments would have quickly led to a mature market for program retransmission rights with stable pricing, reaching that inevitable destination has been slowed by two factors. The first is simply that the monopoly years of cable so badly distorted market forces that the market for retransmission rights didn't begin to develop until satellite TV became a competitive force and the retransmission contracts in place in 1999 began to expire, requiring negotiation of new retransmission deals. This occurred much later in markets where satellite-delivered "local into local" service was delayed because of capacity limitations of the satellite systems themselves. Even then, progress was slow for broadcasters, with cable operators being understandably resistant to paying for something they previously saw themselves as receiving for free. One of the best examples of this era is the cable operator who told us during negotiations that he believed paying for the right to retransmit broadcast signals was "unethical" and proceeded to carry my client's broadcast programming illegally. The negotiation was concluded shortly after the cable operator became the first party ever to be found in violation of the FCC's rules on good faith retrans negotiations, and the FCC ordered retransmission to cease until an agreement was in place.

Which brings us to the second factor that has delayed countless retrans negotiations and slowed the maturation of the market for broadcast retransmission rights--the possibility of government intervention. Retrans negotiations over the past decade have been conducted with a spectral third party in the room--the threat of governmental intrusion into the negotiations. While the FCC previously concluded that it has no authority to force any particular result in retrans negotiations beyond ensuring that the parties are negotiating in good faith, that has not stopped cable and satellite TV operators from regularly calling upon the FCC to intervene in negotiations. When the FCC resists, the call goes to Congress to "fix" retransmission laws or provide the FCC with authority to step in and alter the dynamics of a retrans negotiation. While such multichannel distributors certainly are hoping to place the government's heavy thumb on their side of the scale, creating even the possibility of government intervention generates uncertainty which the cable or satellite TV operator hopes will cause the broadcaster to take the deal that's on the table.

Uncertainty, however, is the enemy of efficient negotiations. When each party knows exactly where it stands, the parties focus on reaching an agreement and getting the deal done as quickly as possible. Where the possibility of government intervention is introduced, the parties cease focusing on each other and start playing to the FCC (or Congress). At best, that means grandstanding and delays in the negotiations while one party hopes to generate enough noise to entice the FCC to step in and get a better result than the party can negotiate on its own. At worst, it means creating high visibility blackouts in an effort to draw the FCC or Congress into launching retrans "reform". Both approaches are the antithesis of efficient and swift negotiations, with one party quite literally putting off "getting down to business" in hopes that it is buying time for the FCC to join the fray. This approach has unfortunately made some Retrans 2.0 negotiations slow, messy, and unpleasant for all involved, including subscribers.

That is why this week's CBS and Time Warner deal, regardless of its economic terms, is a watershed event. The negotiations started in typical Retrans 2.0 fashion, resulting in a blackout of CBS programming on Time Warner systems and the traditional public exchange of unpleasantries between the parties as government intervention was sought to protect subscribers from the loss of CBS programming. In fact, some have speculated that Time Warner dug in its heels specifically to create a high profile program disruption that might draw in Congress or the FCC. The FCC played its part in the drama, with a spokesman for the acting Chair of the FCC announcing just five days into the blackout that the agency "stand[s] ready to take appropriate action if the dispute continues."

However, it is what happened in the nearly four weeks of CBS blackout after that comment was made that carried us from Retrans 2.0 into the world of Retrans 3.0. Specifically: the blackout occurred in the highest profile markets, but the government did not step in; the blackout was geographically widespread, but the government did not step in; the blackout involved high-profile network programming, but the government did not step in; the blackout drug on far longer than imagined, but the government did not step in; the blackout affected a major sporting event and threatened to affect upcoming NFL games, but the government did not step in. In short, it presented one of the most politically-appealing invitations for the government to second guess the path of a free market retrans negotiation, and the government declined to do so. Perhaps just as important, viewers came to realize that the sun still rose in the morning despite the CBS blackout, antenna manufacturers enjoyed a sales boost, and a retrans deal was achieved in less time than it typically takes Congress to name a post office.

Having seen the government's lack of enthusiasm for getting involved in one of the most extreme examples of a blackout, parties to retrans negotiations will hopefully be able to retire "threatening to involve the government" as a negotiating tactic. While I have no illusions that such threats will now cease, their impact has been considerably diminished over the past month. The CBS/Time Warner dispute presented an unprecedented opportunity for broadcasters and multichannel providers to peer into the deepest recesses of their corporate closets and confirm that there is no government bogeyman residing within, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting negotiators. Freed from the need to look over their shoulder during retrans negotiations, or to play to the governmental crowd, parties can focus on getting retrans deals done quickly and efficiently, without being distracted by the uncertainties and contingency planning surrounding disruptions from outside the negotiating room.

Blackouts are caused by one or both parties to a retrans negotiation misgauging their negotiating power relative to the other party. While that will inevitably still happen from time to time for the same reasons it happens in any business negotiation, the legacy of Retrans 3.0 is that it should no longer happen because one party thinks that if it delays enough, or causes enough of a public stir over a retrans dispute, the FCC will come to its rescue. The result will be better for all, including subscribers.

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