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The Un-Free State of Retransmission Consent


In the heat of the battle raging over carriage of various Fox networks on Cablevision’s systems, Randy May, the founder and chief intellect of the Free State Foundation, has weighed in on the retransmission consent debate (available here). I read his comments with interest, because Randy often provides insightful observations on important telecommunications policy issues, and I care about retransmission consent.

I was disappointed. The paper only rehashes the cable television party line.

Surprisingly, Randy suggests that broadcasters’ exercise of retransmission consent rights should be scrutinized and possibly regulated even more. One would have to dig pretty deep to find the last time Randy advocated solving a problem by throwing more government at it.

The party line Randy endorses goes something like this: broadcasters get special privileges from the government with respect to signal carriage, which give them a retrans “negotiating advantage.” Retransmission consent negotiations don’t happen in a free market goes the argument. The solution? Broadcasters’ retransmission rights should be even more regulated than they are already.
Randy cites two “advantages” broadcasters supposedly enjoy in retrans negotiations: (1) must-carry and (2) program exclusivity. The cable industry party line is a little tortured, coming, as it does, from interests subject to a small fraction of the regulatory umbrella that shadows broadcasters. These are the same companies, after all, that argue government should stand back and let broadband carriers treat Internet traffic as they will.

The party line is also completely wrong about the carriage rules.
First, the existence of must-carry sometimes harms, but never helps, broadcasters that elect retransmission consent. Broadcasters must claim their retrans rights once every three years through a technical and exacting election process. If they make a mistake, they risk having to give away their signals for free. Cable companies routinely use this against broadcasters in retrans negotiations.

By definition, any broadcaster engaged in retransmission consent negotiations has forfeited its must-carry rights. It’s either-or. Each broadcaster makes its election once every three years — same election for all overlapping cable operators, no cherry-picking. If you elect retrans, you have no guarantee of being carried at all and no option to revert to must-carry if negotiations break down.

Must-carry benefits some broadcasters, no doubt. But it doesn’t confer any advantage on a broadcaster that elects retransmission consent. The cable/DBS/telco party line suggests that must-carry gives broadcasters a retrans advantage, but it never identifies what that supposed advantage is. Randy doesn’t explain the advantage either. There is none.
Second, the program exclusivity rules impose huge burdens on broadcasters. Start with the unregulated baseline: producers and distributors are free under the law to agree to exclusive distribution territories. The broadcast networks and affiliates, if they wanted to, could agree that each affiliate has unfettered nonduplication protection throughout its DMA. That would be a free market.

But this is anything but a free market: even if broadcasters purchase exclusivity rights, they may not enforce those rights except within limited, FCC-defined areas. If you doubt me, just read the notes to the network nonduplication and the syndicated exclusivity rules. And this is a bargaining advantage? A reason to pile more rules on broadcasters?
Having read hundreds of Randy’s usually insightful postings over the years, I’m disappointed to see him republish boilerplate cable industry advocacy. His comments run counter to the Free State Foundation’s guiding principles and lack Randy’s trademark sharpness and passion. More to the point, they bizarrely suggest that the government somehow does broadcasters a favor by limiting their free market rights.