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Retransmission Without an Agreement Is an Expensive Mistake

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.