Must-Carry/Retransmission Consent Category

Supreme Court Finds That Aereo's Major Innovation Is Copyright Infringement

Scott R. Flick

Posted June 25, 2014

By Scott R. Flick

In a 6-3 decision released this morning, the Supreme Court didn't just rain on Aereo's parade, but drenched it. For a case involving fairly convoluted points of law, the Supreme Court's decision is surprisingly straightforward: if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, no amount of technology will change the fact that it is a duck.

At this early stage of the case--keep in mind this was just about whether an injunction against Aereo should have been issued by the lower courts for one specific type of copyright infringement--the question before the Court was whether Aereo's system "performs" broadcasters' copyrighted works, and whether that is a "public" performance. If so, Aereo's operations infringe on broadcasters' copyrights in that programming. Aereo's argument in response was that since its system does nothing until activated by a subscriber, and even then only transmits a single private copy to that subscriber, Aereo was not involved in generating public performances.

The Court strongly disagreed, finding that an essential purpose of Congress's passage of the Copyright Act of 1976 was to make clear that transmissions of broadcast programming by third-parties to the public (e.g., cable systems) create public performances that implicate copyright law. Specifically, the Court noted "the [Copyright] Act is unmistakable: An entity that engages in activities like Aereo's performs," and "the fact that Aereo's subscribers may receive the same programs at different times and locations is of no consequence. Aereo transmits a performance of petitioners' works 'to the public.'"

Aereo's argument that it is just a renter of receiving equipment fared no better, with the Court stating: "We conclude that Aereo is not just an equipment supplier and that Aereo 'performs.'" Of note for those concerned about whether an Aereo decision for broadcasters might affect the public's ability to store other data in the cloud, the Court agreed with the brief filed by the Department of Justice that there is an important distinction between members of the public storing their own content in the cloud and those using the Internet to access the content of others, finding that a transmission to "the public" for purposes of implicating the Copyright Act "does not extend to those who act as owners or possessors of the relevant product."

However, the most interesting aspect of the decision is that the Court is far more hostile to Aereo than even the 6-3 vote would indicate. Some of the strongest arguments against Aereo are actually found in Justice Scalia's dissent, which was joined by Justices Thomas and Alito. While criticizing the majority for its "looks like a cable system" premise, in making his best case for finding in favor of Aereo, Justice Scalia makes two telling statements. The first, after he argues that Aereo is just a passive conduit for subscribers' content reception and therefore does not "perform" broadcasters' copyrighted content, is his statement noting

"[t]hat conclusion does not mean that Aereo's service complies with the Copyright Act. Quite the contrary. The Networks' complaint that Aereo is directly and secondarily liable for infringing their public-performance rights (Section 106(4)) and also their reproduction rights (Section 106(1)). Their request for a preliminary injunction--the only issue before this Court--is based exclusively on the direct-liability portion of the public performance claim.... Affirming the judgment below would merely return this case to the lower courts for consideration of the Networks' remaining claims."

Justice Scalia then goes much further, stating:

"I share the Court's evident feeling that what Aereo is doing (or enabling to be done) to the Networks' copyrighted programming ought not to be allowed. But perhaps we need not distort the Copyright Act to forbid it."

He then proceeds to note again that there are other copyright infringement claims before the lower court that should be considered on remand, and that Congress is always free to modify the law to eliminate any perceived "loophole" if necessary.

As a result, while today's ruling is a 6-3 decision in favor of granting an injunction against Aereo, it ultimately reads like a 9-0 rebuke of Aereo's business plan. One of the most interesting legal analogies is also found in Justice Scalia's dissent, where he likens Aereo to a copy shop where the shop owner plays no part in the content copied:

"A copy shop rents out photocopiers on a per-use basis. One customer might copy his 10-year-old's drawings--a perfectly lawful thing to do--while another might duplicate a famous artist's copyrighted photographs--a use clearly prohibited by Section 106(1)."

The reason this analogy is (perhaps unintentionally) revealing is that in the Aereo scenario, the subscriber can't use the system to display his ten-year-old's drawings; he can only display the content that Aereo puts on the shelf in its copy shop for the subscriber to access--all of which is copyrighted. Even if a particular program has entered the public domain, the broadcast signal--including its combination of program selections, current advertising, and station interstitials--is not in the public domain. In any event, Aereo has never attempted to limit its relay of content to subscribers to public domain materials (which admittedly would be the worst business plan ever).

While there had been some concern among broadcasters (and hope for Aereo supporters) after oral argument in this proceeding that Aereo was gaining traction with its claim that a ruling against Aereo was a ruling against innovation, the Court's decision states that it sees today's ruling as narrowly focused on the issue of transmission of broadcast signals, and that parties seeking to expand its principles to issues like cloud computing will have to wait until that issue is actually before the Court. In the meantime, the Court made clear that the only innovation it saw in Aereo was copyright infringement, and that has already been around for a long time.


Supreme Court Seems Skeptical About Aereo's Business Model

Paul A. Cicelski

Posted April 23, 2014

By Paul A. Cicelski

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Aereo case, providing the first indication of how the Justices view the case pitting Aereo against content providers, particularly broadcast networks. For background on Aereo's technology and the previous lower court cases, Scott Flick of our office has written extensively on the subject, and a variety of his writings on Aereo can be found here. While trying to read the Court's mind solely through the questions asked by the Justices can be risky, it is fair to say that Aereo encountered some skepticism on its claim to be an innovator and not a copyright infringer.

Given the significant amount of lower court litigation preceding Tuesday's oral arguments, there wasn't much in the way of surprises in the arguments made, many of which focused on the question of whether Aereo engages in a "public performance" when it transmits content to paying subscribers requesting that programming. A transcript of the proceeding can be found here. A number of the Justices focused on the question of whether Aereo's fabled sea of mini-antennas served any purpose beyond seeking to circumvent the Copyright Act of 1976. Chief Justice Roberts noted that Aereo's system seemed designed specifically "to get around the copyright laws," and Justice Ginsburg asked Aereo's counsel if there is any "technical reason" Aereo needed to have 10,000 dime-size antennas to operate, or if it was merely designed that way to "avoid the breach of the Copyright Act."

What was a bit of a surprise was the extent to which the Justices' questions focused on Aereo's strategic effort to cloak itself as just another provider of cloud services. A number of the Justices indicated concern that there might not be an elegant way of ruling against Aereo without risking a ripple effect to cloud-based services, and it was obvious that none were interested in seeing that happen. Justice Kagan sought clarification regarding how Aereo could be distinguished from other cloud service companies, asking:

What if --­­ how about there are lots of companies where many, many thousands or millions of people put things up there, and then they share them, and the company in some ways aggregates and sorts all that content. Does that count?

Counsel for the broadcasters and the Justice Department attempted to respond to this concern, largely reiterating the position taken in the DOJ's amicus brief:

The proper resolution of this dispute is straightforward. Unlike a purveyor of home antennas, or the lessor of hilltop space on which individual consumers may erect their own antennas . . . [Aereo] does not simply provide access to equipment or other property that facilitates customers' reception of broadcast signals. Rather, [Aereo] operates an integrated system--i.e., a "device or process"--whose functioning depends on its customers' shared use of common facilities. The fact that as part of that system [Aereo] uses unique copies and many individual transmissions does not alter the conclusion that it is retransmitting broadcast content "to the public." Like its competitors, [Aereo] therefore must obtain licenses to perform the copyrighted content on which its business relies. That conclusion, however, should not call into question the legitimacy of businesses that use the Internet to provide new ways for consumers to store, hear, and view their own lawfully acquired copies of copyrighted works.

The catchphrase for this idea in the oral arguments became a "locker" in the cloud, where consumers could safely store their lawfully obtained content, but which would cross the copyright line if stocked for the consumer for a fee with infringing content by a commercial service like Aereo. While a useful analogy, it did not appear to put an end to the Justices' concern that the line between a fair use and infringement might not always be clear in the cloud. That is certainly true, but it is also true outside the cloud, where copyright questions are notoriously complex and difficult.

Of course, the most interesting aspect of the Court's diversion into an examination of cloud services is that it is technically irrelevant to the case at hand. It is safe to say that when Congress enacted the Copyright Act of 1976, cloud computing wasn't even a distant dream. Imputing an intent on the part of Congress to draft the law in 1976 so as to neatly exclude such services from what might have then been considered copyright infringement is an unrealistic expectation. As a result, courts have always been faced with the task of applying existing copyright law to evolving applications of technologies, with the understanding that Congress will need to step in and change the law if the results cease to be satisfactory.

Having said that, it is the policy of the Supreme Court to narrowly rule on questions before it wherever possible, and drafting a decision addressing only Aereo without reaching the broader question of copyright law in the cloud is certainly the judicious approach, and what most expect the Court to do when a decision is released this summer.


Broadcasters Get a Free Throw in Aereo Case

Scott R. Flick

Posted April 17, 2014

By Scott R. Flick

Oral arguments before the Supreme Court are less than a week away in the Aereo case, and broadcasters are feeling pretty good about their chances. With the Department of Justice, Professor Nimmer (who, along with his father, quite literally wrote the book on copyright), and a host of other luminaries filing in support of the broadcasters' position, the storyline looks a lot like broadcasters have portrayed it from the beginning: that this is a simple case of copyright infringement hidden behind a veil of modern technological obfuscation.

Sensing that such a storyline is fatal to its prospects, Aereo has responded by casting this case as an attack on consumers' use of the cloud, and has attracted some allies based on that storyline. However, it is a pretty thin storyline, as few think that the country's highest court is so careless as to draft a broadcast retransmission rights decision that accidentally destroys the world of cloud computing. The two are not tough to distinguish, and even if the Court secretly disliked cloud computing, it hardly needs to opine on the copyright implications of cloud computing to decide the Aereo question.

Still, lower courts have disagreed on these issues, and only a fool enters the Supreme Court certain that the court will rule in his favor. There are many moving parts, and if a case were easy to decide, it would not have made it to the Supreme Court. That is why both sides will be anxiously watching the oral arguments for hints as to where the various justices stand on the matter.

As of today, however, broadcasters have one less reason to sweat about the outcome. The Court announced yesterday that Justice Alito, who had previously recused himself from the case, is now able to participate. This is a significant development for broadcasters. Because the 2nd Circuit decision being appealed was in Aereo's favor, Alito's earlier recusal meant that the case would be heard by the remaining eight justices. That created the risk of a 4-4 tie, which would leave the adverse 2nd Circuit decision in place.

In that scenario, broadcasters would need to win 5 of the 8 possible votes in order to overturn the lower court decision. That can be a tall order, and impossible if it turns out that four justices are firmly on the Aereo side of the fence. With Alito no longer recused, broadcasters now have an additional avenue for scoring that fifth vote. In other words, it's easier to attract 5 votes out of 9 than it is to get 5 votes out of 8. That means broadcasters are unlikely to find themselves losing on a tie vote, and if the rest of the court should split 4-4, Alito's entry into the fray effectively gives broadcasters a free throw opportunity at the buzzer to score his vote and break that tie. Now broadcasters just need to convert on that opportunity.


Aereo Stumbles in Utah on Its Way to the Supreme Court

Scott R. Flick

Posted February 20, 2014

By Scott R. Flick

I wrote a few weeks ago about Aereo's Rocky Path Ahead, discussing the legal obstacles Aereo will need to overcome even if the Supreme Court should rule in its favor in the currently pending proceeding. Yesterday, that path became even rockier, when a federal judge in Utah dropped a boulder in Aereo's path. The resulting sound was that of a thousand tiny antennas splintering against Utah red sandstone, with the judge granting a preliminary injunction prohibiting Aereo from operating in Utah, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Wyoming.

The decision is Aereo's first major defeat in court, although Aereo look-alike FilmOn X already has two preliminary injunctions against it. The most notable aspect of Judge Kimball's decision, however, is that he had little difficulty concluding that Aereo's service was exactly the type of copyright infringement Congress intended to prohibit in enacting the 1976 Copyright Act. Quotable quotes from the decision include "[t]he court ... has carefully reviewed each of the prior decisions and has concluded that the California and D.C. district court cases [granting injunctions] as well as Judge Chin's dissent in the Second Circuit case are the better reasoned and more persuasive decisions ...." and "[t]his court agrees with Judge Chin that '[b]y any reasonable construction of the statute, Aereo is engaging in public performances' when it intercepts and retransmits copyrighted programs to paying strangers."

As the language above indicates, broadcasters have much to like in Judge Kimball's decision and really nothing to dislike. In fact, they surely hope that the Supreme Court decision will look a lot like the Utah decision. In that regard, I should mention that TV Technology this week published a pro/con article on how the Supreme Court should rule, and asked me to write the pro-broadcaster analysis. John Bergmayer of Public Knowledge ably handled the pro-Aereo portion of the article which, by coincidence, was published on the same day the Utah decision was released. In reading Judge Kimball's decision, I was struck by how many of the pro-broadcaster arguments found their way into his decision. For those interested, reprinted below is my contribution to the TV Technology article. If you would like to see the entire article, including John Bergmayer's pro-Aereo argument, it can be found here.


The Broadcaster Argument Against Aereo

The major argument you hear in support of Aereo is "if a viewer can do it, then the viewer should be allowed to hire Aereo to do it for them." That logic is flawed for a number of legal reasons too complex to address in this short space, but it is also factually flawed--a truism that isn't true (i.e., a person can have sex with their spouse, but if they hire someone else to do it, that's prostitution, and it's illegal in most places).

More specifically though, Aereo isn't doing what viewers otherwise do on their own, it is doing what no viewer in their right mind would do--renting a building near the Empire State Building to place their antenna and the equipment necessary to transcode the signal for relay over the Internet, signing up for broadband Internet access at that leased sight so the signal can be transmitted over the Internet, paying for electricity at that site to power the equipment, making regular maintenance visits to keep the equipment operational, and paying higher fees for both the antenna site and home broadband connections because of the broadband speeds and capacity needed to relay nonstop HD broadcast programming.

The reason no consumer has ever done this is obvious--installing a window antenna, buying basic cable service, or just watching Internet video sources like Hulu is both simpler and cheaper. The difference between a home viewer and Aereo is akin to the difference between a recreational fisherman and a commercial fisherman--for good reason, the commercial fisherman is subject to many more regulations, and if the recreational fisherman starts using commercial trawlers and drift nets for fishing, he is no longer a recreational fisherman.

The Supreme Court is not, however, considering Aereo's general legality at this early stage, but only the narrow question of "whether a company 'publicly performs' a copyrighted television program when it retransmits a broadcast of that program to thousands of paid subscribers over the Internet." The stakes are markedly higher for Aereo than for broadcasters at the Supreme Court, as a ruling against Aereo would pave the way for an injunction against its service while simultaneously making it very difficult for Aereo to demonstrate in various courts around the country that its service does not infringe copyright. In contrast, a ruling in favor of Aereo, while a significant boost, would still leave Aereo with major legal and factual obstacles to overcome at trial (e.g., does each Aereo subscriber actually have their own antenna and DVR as promised?; do the copies of programs made at the request of subscribers qualify as fair use under copyright policy?). In other words, the Supreme Court's ruling on this one issue could be devastating to Aereo, but a ruling to the opposite effect won't resolve Aereo's other legal issues.

Copyright law can be arcane in the extreme, but to oversimplify the transmission issue a bit, it boils down to this: if Aereo transmits the same content to a thousand subscribers, there is no dispute that each subscriber counts as a public performance of the content and infringes the rights of the copyright holder. Aereo argues however that it is not transmitting the same content to a thousand subscribers, but is transmitting unique content to each of those subscribers, leading to a thousand private performances that do not trigger copyright infringement. Stated in this way, the key question becomes "what is the 'content', and how can it be unique for each subscriber?" Aereo's argument is that since each subscriber is assigned (at least temporarily) its own antenna and hard drive, a transmission of program content from that particular hard drive is unique. This conclusion is counterintuitive at best, since every hard drive copy and transmission of this week's episode of The Big Bang Theory will be bit-for-bit identical with every other one, undercutting the notion that these transmissions are in any way unique private performances. As Judge Chin pointed out in his Second Circuit dissents in this proceeding, the relevant "content" has to be the program itself, not the bits on a particular hard drive, and since the same program is being distributed to those thousand subscribers, Aereo is transmitting a public performance that infringes copyright. Asserting that "this string of bits is different than that string of bits because they come from different hard drives, even though they are bit-for-bit identical" is just one more reason people make fun of lawyers.

While Aereo asserts that this illogical result is a loophole left by Congress in copyright law, it is not. Instead, it is a loophole created out of whole cloth by overenthusiastic extension of the sometimes tortured logic found in the Second Circuit's earlier decision in the Cablevision case. Cablevision, however, is a good example of that maxim we learned in law school that "good facts make bad law." In that case, the subscriber had paid for the content, and the cable operator had paid for the right to retransmit that content. Setting aside its legal reasoning to get there, it was not difficult for the Second Circuit to conclude, in effect, that if everyone in the process has been compensated anyway, and the proposed use isn't undercutting the market for that content, then what's the harm of letting a subscriber have their DVR located at the cable headend rather than at their house? However, whenever the law is contorted to achieve a factually attractive outcome, the inevitable result is other parties seeking to apply that same tortured logic to situations with far less attractive facts. Aereo is that case, and the Supreme Court hopefully will be the solution.


Aereo's Rocky Path Ahead

Scott R. Flick

Posted February 6, 2014

By Scott R. Flick

Where the law aims to draw a bright line between what is permissible and what is not, advances in technology often blur that line, creating factual scenarios that couldn't have existed when the law was drafted. In the case of Aereo's technology, the mistake many are making is to assume that technology doesn't just blur the line, but erases it entirely. Courts, however, are remarkably astute at locating that faded line and darkening it rather than just throwing up their hands and saying "Congress didn't specifically address this technology, so you're free to do whatever you want with it." As Napster discovered years ago, just because a technology wasn't envisioned by Congress when the copyright laws were drafted doesn't exempt it from their application.

In the proceeding now pending before the Supreme Court, the Court is looking only at the narrow issue of whether the Second Circuit erred in declining to issue an injunction against Aereo's service on the grounds that Aereo's transmissions are not "public performances" of broadcast programs. While the details of this debate are quite nuanced, a ruling that Aereo is engaged in transmitting public performances would be the judicial equivalent of a torpedo amidships; Aereo might not sink immediately, but it would start taking on water fast. Aereo's argument against such a finding is that its system of thousands of antennas paired with thousands of hard drives allows it to engage in thousands of private transmissions, but no transmissions to "the public" triggering copyright liability.

From a policy standpoint, there is little doubt that Congress never intended to bless such an arbitrary distinction, or the use of technological workarounds that serve no purpose but to try to circumvent copyright laws. To some extent, Aereo doesn't seem to deny this, but argues that Congress left a tiny opening in the law that the Second Circuit then stretched into a man-size opening in the Cablevision case, and Aereo is just stepping through that doorway.

Tellingly, however, the relevant aspects of copyright law have not changed much in recent years, and it was only the Second Circuit's actions that created a "loophole" where none existed before. As Judge Chin made clear in his Second Circuit dissents, creating the Aereo loophole requires such a tortured reading of the law that "pinhole" is a more accurate description than "loophole". Because the Supreme Court is not bound by Second Circuit decisions, however, it could well resolve the issue in favor of broadcasters without breaking a sweat.

Lost in the furor over what the Supreme Court will do though, is the fact that Aereo has a lot more at stake at this stage than broadcasters. While a sufficiently adverse ruling by the Supreme Court could be fatal to Aereo, a ruling favorable to Aereo would still leave a rocky path ahead, with many other obstacles to be traversed. As just one example, what if trial discovery reveals that the Aereo architecture doesn't quite live up to the "one subscriber, one antenna" approach upon which Aereo has staked its legal survival?

Similarly, while the current debate at the Supreme Court is focused on the legality of Aereo's transmissions to subscribers, missing from the public debate has been much discussion of the legality of Aereo's copying of broadcast programs to transmit. Aereo's fundamental legal argument in that regard has been that if a consumer can legally make a home copy, then they should be able to hire Aereo to do it for them. But consider the following example: as a listener, you can record radio broadcasts, including the music in them, and keep those copies for your personal, noncommercial use. Knowing this, I create a company with the ability to receive all local radio stations using sophisticated signal analysis software and databases that can instantly recognize any song and, upon request, copy that song onto a hard drive. I then solicit subscribers, who send me their requested playlists, and for a fee, my sophisticated equipment and full-time employees can automatically record each requested song onto the hard drive I have assigned to a particular subscriber. The subscriber can then access that music for use on home computers and stereos, or pay me an additional fee to convert all of "their" files into MP3, FLAC, or other useful file formats so that the music can be downloaded to any of the subscriber's consumer devices, including tablets, smartphones, or home music servers.

In an Aereo world, all I've done is accomplish what a radio listener (with very expensive and sophisticated monitoring equipment and software) could have done on their own, so my music service is completely legitimate and copyright compliant. Of course, why stop there? Why not sell subscribers a blank CD and then charge them a fee for recording "their" music on it? We've just automated the process for subscribers to create their own "home" mix tapes! It's Pandora without all those pesky ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, and record company royalties. In the real world, however, does anyone think this "Audio Aereo" service would survive even the most cursory of legal challenges? Video Aereo may fare no better.

While advocates of Aereo will cite the Second Circuit's Cablevision decision as the guiding legal precedent for Aereo's operations, the true wellspring of Aereo is the Supreme Court's 1984 Sony Betamax decision. In a narrow 5 to 4 decision, the Supreme Court found that home recording of television programming constituted a "fair use" under copyright law, launching the age of home video recording. The Second Circuit's contribution in Cablevision was to state that the location of a viewer's recording device is unimportant, clearing the way for cable subscribers to "rent" a DVR located at the cable headend from their cable provider while retaining the fair use status of "home" recording.

In developing a Rube Goldberg service whose complexity serves no purpose other than seeking to sidestep copyright law, Aereo has pushed the Second Circuit's logic past the breaking point. In Cablevision, the subscriber had paid for the content, and the cable operator had paid for the right to retransmit that content. It was therefore not difficult for the Second Circuit to conclude, in effect, "if everyone in the process has been compensated, and it doesn't undercut the market for the content, then what's the harm of letting a subscriber locate their DVR at the cable headend rather than in the subscriber's house? Have we really altered the activity to such an extent that recording program content is no longer the fair use blessed by the Supreme Court in Sony Betamax?"

And this is where a fundamental flaw in Aereo's legal position emerges. The test is not whether a member of the public can copy a program for their own home viewing and call it fair use; the test is whether Aereo copying a program for that subscriber still qualifies as a fair use under copyright doctrine. Fair use analysis considers four factors: (1) the commercial or nonprofit nature of the activity; (2) the nature of the copyrighted work; (3) the substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and (4) the effect of the use on the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work. The Supreme Court's decision in Sony Betamax focused on the first and fourth factors, finding that individuals recording programs for time-shifting is a noncommercial activity, and that time-shifting is unlikely to undercut the market for the copyrighted work. The Supreme Court therefore found that home taping qualifies as fair use.

In contrast, Aereo's copying of broadcast programming (even at a subscriber's behest) is decidedly not a "noncommercial activity", and even the Second Circuit decision affirming the denial of an injunction against Aereo did not disagree with the district court's finding that Aereo would cause irreparable harm to broadcasters. That irreparable harm arises from undercutting the market for the copied programming. In other words, the two factors that principally led the Supreme Court to bless home taping as a fair use in Sony Betamax produce the opposite result when applied to Aereo. Justice Stevens' majority decision in Sony Betamax is instructive in this regard. He wrote that "If the Betamax were used to make copies for a commercial or profitmaking purpose, such use would presumptively be unfair," and "every commercial use of copyrighted material is presumptively an unfair exploitation of the monopoly privilege that belongs to the owner of the copyright...." The Aereo service is clearly a "commercial use of copyrighted material" that undercuts the market for that material. By the very decision that allows home recording to exist as a fair use under copyright law, "home" recordings made by Aereo appear to fall outside that protection, and Aereo would not be able to avail itself of the fair use defense in making copies of broadcast programming.

Which means that if the Supreme Court rules against Aereo on the transmission issue, the Aereo story could come to a relatively abrupt end, but if it doesn't, Aereo still faces serious legal hurdles ahead. In either case, the Supreme Court's decision on the transmission issue is not likely to be the "one and done" referendum that Aereo might have hoped for. Stated differently, if the Supreme Court decision does turn out to be "one and done," it will be Aereo that is done.


Scott Flick of Pillsbury to Speak on "Will the Aereo Case Force a Rewrite of Communications and Copyright Laws?"

Scott R. Flick

Posted January 16, 2014

Scott R. Flick will speak on a panel discussing Aereo and its impact on communications and copyright laws during this Webinar hosted by the Bloomberg BNA on January 16, 2014 from 1:00 PM to 2:30 PM.


A Lesson for Congress on Retrans Negotiations?

Scott R. Flick

Posted October 2, 2013

By Scott R. Flick

The irony. The sheer irony. Just a few weeks ago, Congress was holding hearings in which the challenges of concluding retransmission negotiations without the occasional service disruption featured prominently. Representative Eshoo's draft legislation targeting such disruptions had just been released, and there was little doubt that some members of Congress felt that CBS and Time Warner Cable had not worked hard enough at preventing a disruption of CBS programming on TWC cable systems, or worse, had been indifferent to the impact on cable viewers.

Fast forward a few weeks and we now face another impasse where the parties have been unable to negotiate an accord, with the resulting disruption greatly affecting the public. Also familiar are the statements to the press and the public by the negotiators that the inability to reach a negotiated resolution is entirely the other party's fault.

The difference this week is that we are not talking about a retrans dispute, but the shutdown of the federal government. While the ramifications of this disruption are far greater than any retrans dispute, the similarity of circumstances is striking. First, all of the parties to the negotiation knew well in advance exactly when the current authorization was expiring and of the need to negotiate an extension. Second, all of the parties knew that the stakes are high and that disruption of service to the public should be avoided if at all possible. Third, it is primarily a dispute about money.

And yet, despite the early warning, the high stakes, and the impending loss of service to the public, Congress failed to reach agreement and the government shut down. As I wrote a few weeks ago, as nice as it would be to avoid it, one of the inherent characteristics of arm's length negotiations is that a disruption is sometimes necessary to jolt the parties into moving off of their original positions and on to a negotiated result. Admittedly, national budgetary policy is more complex than most (but perhaps not all) retransmission negotiations, but then the adverse impact of the accompanying disruption is vastly greater as well.

Unlike a retrans dispute, however, where the public can fully restore service with a set of rabbit ears, nothing I can buy at my local radio Radio Shack will open the national parks or allow FCC staffers to return to their desks to process my applications. In short, even where the harm from service disruption is infinitely greater than in any retrans negotiation, Congress failed to find common ground and avoid that disruption.

Given the high stakes, it is interesting that there are actually far more protections against failed negotiations in the retrans context than in the congressional context. For example, unlike Congress, parties to retransmission negotiations are subject to the FCC's rule requiring good faith negotiations. While those who assert that the current retrans process is broken frequently argue that merely policing the negotiation process to ensure the parties are negotiating in good faith is not enough, it seems like those rules might actually be fairly useful in the current congressional conundrum.

For example, a party violates the FCC's good faith rule if it refuses to show up for negotiations, unreasonably delays negotiations, refuses to put forth more than a single unilateral proposal (the "take it or leave it" approach), or fails to respond to a proposal by the other party. Some might argue that such restrictions limit a party's freedom to negotiate, but all retrans negotiations are conducted within that regulatory framework, making retrans negotiations more regulated than most, and giving proponents of adding yet further layers of restrictions a high hurdle to jump.

That will of course not prevent continued efforts by regulatory proponents to make that leap, but given the events of this week, it will be hard for members of Congress to feign shock and disbelief that two parties, even after making arduous efforts, aren't always able to negotiate away their differences before those differences disrupt service to the public. Where such intractable disputes arise, we should all be thrilled if all that is needed to solve the problem is a pair of rabbit ears.


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.


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.


Today's Aereo Decision: Technology Takes a Backseat

Scott R. Flick

Posted July 16, 2013

By Scott R. Flick

In a decision that disappointed but didn't entirely surprise broadcasters, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit today declined to rehear in banc its earlier decision rejecting a request by broadcasters to terminate with extreme prejudice Aereo's broadcast subscription service in New York. Today's announcement was not a decision on the merits, but merely the result of a poll taken among the Second Circuit judges in which less than a majority indicated an interest in hearing the case in banc. Barring an effort by broadcasters to seek Supreme Court review (and Fox, at least, has indicated that option is not off the table), the matter will return to the trial court for a full trial on whether Aereo is infringing on broadcast copyrights.

Once again, Second Circuit Judge Denny Chin, who had been the district judge in the earlier Cablevision case on which Aereo has built its business, dissented from today's decision. His dissent is respectful but spirited, and so thoroughly dismantles the court's earlier decision in favor of Aereo that a reader new to the dispute could be forgiven for being mystified as to how the other two judges on the original panel could have reached a contrary conclusion.

As interesting as the legal dispute itself is (at least to lawyers), the end result may well be governed more by technology than by law. If you have spent much time in the communications world, you have heard the old saw that "the law struggles to keep up with technology." In the case of Aereo, however, it has been quite the opposite, with technology struggling to keep up with the law.

After the Second Circuit's decision in Cablevision created, as Judge Chin's dissent today puts it, "'guideposts' on how to avoid compliance with our copyright laws," Aereo and others apparently raced to develop technology that could neatly fit through the legal loophole Cablevision ostensibly created. Judge Chin is obviously not a fan of such reverse engineering, noting today that "[i]n my view, however, the system is a sham, as it was designed solely to avoid the reach of the Copyright Act and to take advantage of a perceived loophole in the law purportedly created by Cablevision."

So far, the Aereo legal proceedings have presumed that Aereo was successful in its engineering efforts, and that its "one tiny antenna per subscriber" approach allows it to technologically clear the legal hurdles of the Copyright Act. Those familiar with the intricacies of radiofrequency engineering, however, have been quick to point out that the biggest obstacle to the Aereo system isn't the laws of copyright, but the laws of physics.

One of the immutable laws of RF antenna design is that the size of the receiving antenna must correlate to the wavelengths it is meant to receive. As a result, high frequency devices (which means short wavelengths) can get by with smaller antennas, whereas the comparatively massive wavelengths of TV signals require much larger receiving antennas. That is why, during the golden age of over-the-air TV reception, and during the silver age of over-the-air HDTV reception, the promises of smaller and smaller antennas that would work "just as good" as hulking rooftop antennas never came to fruition.

Aereo's claim of reliable reception with dime-size TV antennas (particularly in New York, the world capital of urban multipath interference) therefore seemed more akin to alchemy than to advanced RF antenna design. However, with the exception of patent lawyers and a fair number of communications lawyers, engineering expertise is not a common skill in the legal trade. As a result, the debate over Aereo has focused on that which lawyers know--the law--rather than on that which determines whether Aereo even fits within the legal loophole it claims to exploit--incredible advancements in TV antenna design.

Communications lawyers are perhaps more sensitized than most to the law/engineering dichotomy, as communications is one of the few fields where engineering solutions to legal problems are often an elegant alternative to brute force legal tactics. Because of this, one of the most interesting commentaries on the Aereo dispute I have come across is a piece by Deborah McAdams titled Aereo's Unlikely Proposition.

It is a very intriguing article (and well worth a read) in which a number of engineers discuss why the "fits exactly into the shape of the loophole" system described by Aereo can't exist in the real world. In other words, that Aereo isn't an example of the law falling behind technology, but of technology being unable to produce an antenna capable of outrunning the law. If true, then the success of Aereo's legal battle hangs not on whether it has a groundbreaking legal theory, but on whether the claimed antenna technology emerged from Aereo's engineering department, or from its marketing department.

In either case, Aereo's claims for its technology would be better assessed in an RF testing lab than in a courtroom. Extended debate over the legality of Aereo's claimed technology is pointful only once it has been confirmed that Aereo has indeed created a revolutionary antenna technology that functions as described. If not, then the legal wranglings over a theoretical retransmission system are much ado about nothing.


What's the Cost of Not Having a Retrans Agreement? $2.25 Million

Scott R. Flick

Posted June 25, 2013

By Scott R. Flick

We now know what the per-subscriber fee for cable systems lacking retransmission agreements with local broadcast stations is, and it isn't "free".

Section 76.64 of the FCC's Rules requires cable systems to have a written retransmission agreement in place before retransmitting the signal of a station that elected retransmission consent status. Because the law is clear on this point (for a differing view, see Aereo), there have been few cases where the FCC has had to address complaints of illegal retransmission.

In the first of these cases, the FCC found the cable system violated its obligation to negotiate in good faith with the broadcaster and ordered retransmission to cease until an agreement was in place. Two later cases for a pair of 34-day violations against one cable system operator resulted in base fine calculations of $255,000 each, but the FCC reduced the fines to $15,000 each based upon the cable system operator's inability to pay.

Today, the FCC upped the ante, proposing a fine of $2.25 million for TV Max, Inc. and related parties for retransmitting six local TV stations to 245 multiple dwelling unit buildings in Houston without a retransmission agreement. Despite having previously had retransmission agreements with all of the stations, the cable system operator claimed it now qualified for an exemption from the retransmission agreement requirement because it had installed a master antenna on each of the buildings, allowing residents to obtain the broadcast signals for free over-the-air. Each of the six stations filed a complaint with the FCC, noting that the respective retransmission agreements with the cable system operator had expired or been terminated for non-payment, but that retransmission was continuing.

On December 20, 2012, following an investigation, the FCC's Media Bureau issued a letter to TV Max stating its "initial finding that TV Max had willfully and repeatedly violated, and continued to violate, the Commission's retransmission consent rules, and stating that it planned to recommend that the Commission issue a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture for these violations." The Media Bureau later followed up with a March 28, 2013 letter to all of the parties asking for the status of carriage and whether retransmission agreements were now in place. While the stations all responded that they were still being carried without their consent, TV Max indicated it had not retransmitted the stations over its fiber since June 7, 2012.

That led to today's Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture and Order. In its decision, the FCC found that some of the cable system operator's statements to the FCC were "lacking in candor". Specifically, the FCC concluded that the cable system had continued to retransmit the stations over its fiber and had not installed master antennas on all of its buildings by the time it claimed to have ceased fiber retransmission:

Based upon the evidence before us, and in view of the applicable law and Commission precedent, we conclude that TV Max has willfully and repeatedly violated Section 325 of the Act and Section 76.64 of the Commission's rules, and persists in its violation of these provisions, by retransmitting the Stations' signals without the express authority of the originating stations. As discussed below, the violations are based on (1) TV Max's admitted carriage of the Stations from the time their retransmission consent agreements expired through at least July 25, 2012 without the Stations' consent and without a master antenna television (MATV) system in place in all the buildings it serves; and (2) TV Max's ongoing carriage of the Stations without their consent since July 26, 2012 because it was not exclusively using its MATV facilities to retransmit the broadcast signals to its subscribers.

While the precise length of time any particular station was carried without a retransmission agreement varied, the FCC noted in its decision that Section 503 of the Communications Act limits its ability to issue fines for cable violations occurring more than one year ago. As a result, the FCC based its proposed fine on 365 days worth of violations involving six stations. While the decision is a bit fuzzy on the precise math behind the final number (particularly given that the maximum fine is much higher than the fine proposed), a little reverse engineering provides some real-world context for a $2.25 million fine.

The FCC notes that the system has about 10,000 subscribers, that six stations were carried without a retransmission agreement, and that the fine reflected one year's worth of violations. That works out to a monthly retransmission "fee" of $3.13 per subscriber for each station (apparently the federal government has less negotiating leverage than ESPN). Still, that is more than the cable system operator would have paid under an arms-length negotiated broadcast retransmission agreement. Unfortunately for the affected stations, however, payment of the fine goes to the U.S. Government rather than to the television stations.

On the other hand, retransmitting programs without consent is also a copyright violation, meaning that stations pursuing copyright claims against the cable system operator could add significantly to the operator's financial pain. Such are the risks of reinterpreting the breadth of the Communications Act's retransmission consent requirements (see Aereo?).


Free TV Doesn't Mean Free Lunch

John K. Hane

Posted April 16, 2013

By John Hane

Recently, TVNewsCheck.com ran a short item noting that a large broadcast group (not a network owned and operated group) and a large multichannel video distributor (MVPD) successfully concluded carriage negotiations. There was no interruption of service. Given the successful outcome, I was surprised to see that someone posted a comment regarding the piece saying the deal illustrates why the FCC should tighten its broadcast ownership rules. No matter how many times I read comments of this sort, I am perplexed that people actually believe it's a good thing for the government to mandate that broadcasters be the underdogs in all major negotiations that impact the quality and availability of broadcasters' programming. If anything, government policy should encourage broadcasters to grow to a scale that is meaningful in today's complex television marketplace. Not one of the other major distributors makes its programming available for free.

If independent (non-O&O) broadcasters aren't permitted to achieve a scale large enough to negotiate effectively with upstream programmers and downstream distributors, you won't have to wait long see high cost, high quality, high value programming available for free to those who choose to opt out of the pay TV ecosystem. It's much better to have two, three or four strong competitors in each market, owned by companies that can compete for rational economics in the upstream and downstream markets, than to have eight or more weak competitors, few of which can afford to invest in truly local service or negotiate at arms-length with program suppliers and distributors.

For those who have not been paying attention, the television market has changed profoundly in the past 20 years. The big programmers and the big MVPDs have gotten a whole lot bigger. The largest non-O&O broadcast groups have grown too, but not nearly as much. Fox, Disney/ABC, NBCU and the other programmers are vastly bigger companies with incomparable market power vis-a-vis even the largest broadcast groups. The same is true of the large MVPDs, which together serve the great majority of television households.

There's nothing inherently bad about big content aggregators and big MVPD distributors. And anyway, they are a fact of life. Despite their size, each is trying to deliver a competitive service and deliver good returns for shareholders. That's what they are supposed to do, and in general (with a few exceptions) they serve the country well. But again, they are much, much larger than even the largest broadcast groups. If you believe that having a viable and competitive free television option is a good thing, that's a problem.

So in response to the suggestion that the FCC further limit the scale of broadcasters, I reply: why does the government make it so damn hard for the only television service that is available for free to bargain and compete with vastly larger enterprises that are comparatively unregulated?

Continue reading "Free TV Doesn't Mean Free Lunch"


Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Retransmission Consent (but were afraid to ask)

John K. Hane

Posted June 1, 2012

By John Hane

If all goes well, next week I'll fulfill one of my secret ambitions: to discuss how retransmission consent is affecting the business of television distribution. I've participated in many panel discussions on retransmission consent policy (because I work in Washington, and policy is what we talk about here).

On Tuesday I'll be in New York at the SNL Kagan TV and Radio Finance Summit where I'll finally have a chance to talk about the business, financial and investment aspects of retransmission consent (because that's what they talk about in New York). To me, those are the far more intriguing topics, because if you don't totally understand the market, you can't credibly defend your policy positions.

SNL has assembled an all-star panel, including senior execs from Fisher Communications, SJL Broadcast Management Corporation, Communications Corporation of America, Moodys, and the resident FCC Media Bureau Chief, Bill Lake. SNL's Robin Flynn (who always comes armed with thoughtful and well-presented data) will moderate. So Robin, here are some of the questions I'd like to hear debated by my fellow panelists, and I may have an opinion of my own here and there.

  • Why are retransmission fees still so low relative to viewing and why aren't they rising faster? What should the government do to help bring sports programming back to broadcast television?
  • According to SNL research, some groups get much higher retransmission rates than others. Does this reflect real differences or reporting anomalies? Will this differential continue? How will it affect the market?
  • What are the biggest negotiation and deal mistakes groups make?
  • Is there any way to protect against the unexpected, like Aereo and Ad Hopper?
  • Is Aereo really a "retrans killer"? What happens to different market segments if it is? Could some broadcasters be better off if Aereo prevailed?
  • Has retransmission consent fundamentally changed the network-affiliate model, or simply adjusted the dollar flow?
  • Is cord-cutting equally bad for all programmers?
  • Apart from retransmission consent, is there a growth case for broadcast groups?
  • Do rising retrans fees really make the pie bigger (and drive up consumer costs), or do they just move the slices around? Which networks will benefit most long term?
  • And most important: What happens to the price of a Happy Meal when corn futures triple (and what does this tell us about retransmission consent?)

Drop me an email at john.hane@pillsburylaw.com if you're attending and share my intense interest in these questions. If you aren't attending, SNL Kagan is making all of the day's sessions available via simulcast.


Retransmission Without an Agreement Is an Expensive Mistake

Scott R. Flick

Posted March 19, 2012

By Scott R. Flick

As those who follow our interactive calendar are aware, I spoke last week as a representative of broadcasters on a retransmission panel at the American Cable Association Annual Summit. The ACA's membership is predominantly smaller cable system operators, and because of that, the ACA has been very vocal in Washington regarding its displeasure with the current state of retransmission law.

While broadcasters are understandably tired of being paid less per viewer than cable networks, smaller cable operators feel they are being squeezed in the middle--forced to pay more to retransmit broadcast programming, but unable to free up money for those additional payments by paying cable networks less than the amount to which those networks have become accustomed. While the economics of supply and demand should eventually bring programming fees in line with the attractiveness of that programming to viewers, this process will take some time. In the meantime, as I heard from operator after operator during the panel, they are looking for a much faster solution, and that solution is for the government to step in and by some method guarantee cable operators low-cost access to broadcast signals.

A discussion of the dynamics of retransmission negotiations and policy could easily fill a book, but for the limited purposes of this post, I just want to focus on a particular refrain I heard from cable operators, which is that losing a broadcast network signal for even a short time is devastating to their business, leaving them in a tenuous bargaining position during retransmission negotiations.

The reason this came to mind today is a pair of decisions just released by the FCC which illustrate the temptation for a small cable operator to engage in a little "self-help" to overcome what it perceives as an unfair negotiation. These decisions also illustrate why other cable operators should ensure they never succumb to that temptation. In these decisions (here and here), the FCC issued two Notices of Apparent Liability to the same cable operator for continuing to carry the signals of two broadcasters after the old retransmission agreements with those stations expired and before new retransmission agreements were executed.

The affected broadcasters filed complaints with the FCC, and the cable operator responded that it "does not refute that it retransmitted [the stations] without express, written consent. Rather, [the cable operator] argues that it faced a 'dramatic increase' in requested retransmission consent fees, and states that it receives the signal by antenna rather than satellite or the Internet. [The cable operator] claims that [the broadcaster] is 'using [the Commission] as a tool to negotiate a dramatic increase in rates' and it requests that the Commission require the fair negotiation of a reasonable rate."

After a telephone conference with FCC staff, the parties reached agreement on a new retransmission agreement for each of the stations involved, and the agreements were executed on February 3, 2012. However, the really interesting part of these decisions relates not to how the FCC proceeding arose, but to how the FCC chose to assess proposed forfeitures against the cable operator in the twin Notices of Apparent Liability. The FCC noted that the base forfeiture for carriage of a broadcast station without a retransmission agreement in place is $7,500. Since the cable operator had carried the stations without a retransmission agreement for 34 days, the FCC determined that the base forfeiture for each of the violations was $7,500 x 34, or $255,000. That would make the total base forfeiture for illegally carrying both stations during that time $510,000.

Fortunately for the cable operator, the FCC reviewed the operator's financial data and concluded that a half-million dollar fine "would place the company in extreme financial hardship." The FCC therefore exercised its discretion to reduce the proposed forfeitures to $15,000 each, for a total of $30,000. These decisions certainly demonstrate that no matter how frustrated a cable operator is with retransmission costs, the self-help approach is not a wise path to take.

In fact, the proposed FCC fines are only the beginning of a cable operator's potential liability for illegal retransmission. Not addressed by the FCC in its decisions is the fact that retransmission of a broadcast station without an agreement is a violation of not just the FCC's Rules and the Communications Act of 1934, but also of copyright laws. If the illegally-carried broadcast stations chose to pursue it, they could seek copyright damages against the cable operator, and the proposed FCC fines pale in comparison to the potential copyright damages for illegal retransmission. The Copyright Act authorizes the award of up to $150,000 in statutory damages for each infringement, with each program retransmitted being considered a separate infringement. So, for example, if we assume that each station in these decisions aired 24 programs a day for 34 days, the potential copyright damages for such illegal carriage would be $122,400,000 per station. The potential damages for illegally carrying both stations would therefore be close to a quarter-Billion dollars! While it is very unlikely that a court would impose the maximum damages allowed under the Copyright Act, no cable operator would want to run the risk of being ordered to pay even a tiny fraction of that amount for illegal retransmission.

In short, though cable operators certainly may not like paying retransmission fees for broadcast programming, these decisions make clear that the price of not having a retransmission agreement in place can be far higher.


John Hane of Pillsbury to Participate in a Webinar Hosted by SNL Kagan Entitled "The FCC and Retrans: What is on the Agenda", Tuesday, October 11, between 1:30 and 3:00 p.m. ET

Posted October 11, 2011

John Hane will be joined by Tom Larsen of Mediacom Communications and Sarah Barry and Robin Flynn of SNL Kagan to discuss and debate whether the FCC will adopt new retransmission consent rules and whether rules are needed at all.

To register, please click here.