Saturday, October 25, 2014

Broadcasters to FCC: No, we won't tell you the details of our retransmission deals

The Wrap reports that the Federal Communications Commission has put its review of the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger on hold for the second time. This time, the delay is due to the refusal by ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, Viacom and Discovery to supply the agency with details of their retransmission agreements with cable, satellite and IPTV operators. The reason that the FCC wants the retransmission information in the first place is that opponents of the merger have charged that the combined company would have too much power over program suppliers (including the broadcast and cable networks.) The networks have agreed to provide the U.S. Justice Department with the data because it will be kept confidential, but FCC rules require that the data be made available to both supporters and opponents of the Comcast-TWC deal, so that they can use it in their briefs. Only the general public is prohibited from seeing the data.

The six networks have very good reasons for wanting to keep their contracts secret, because once buyers of their content learn how much other companies are paying, they'll want to renegotiate their contracts down to the lowest price. On the other hand, four of the six companies (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) are granted licenses by the FCC to broadcast over-the-air. Unlike mobile carriers such as AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon, television broadcasters get their spectrum for free. So, they are in essence underwritten by U.S. taxpayers for the multi-billion dollar value of their airspace. (Update, November 5, 2014: The FCC has released a "price list" in conjunction with its plan to get broadcasters to relinquish their spectrum so that it can be used for other applications. The FCC values the nationwide recovery of as much as 126 MHz of spectrum at a maximum of $38 billion dollars.) In addition, whenever a retransmission dispute between a broadcaster and a cable, satellite or IPTV operator results in the broadcaster removing their signals from the video operator, the public is stuck in the middle. Therefore, I believe that there's a strong argument for public disclosure of broadcast retransmission deals, above and beyond the Comcast-Time Warner Cable case.

My suggestion is that, if broadcasters want to prohibit anyone outside a handful of government employees from seeing their retransmission deals, they should be forced to pay the full market value for their bandwidth, just as mobile operators do. If they don't want to do that, they always have the option of relinquishing their frequencies and feeding their programs directly to service providers and to consumers over the Internet. CBS threatened to do exactly that if the Supreme Court ruled against it in the Aereo case, so it's clearly an option that's been considered by broadcast networks. If they want to operate in secret using the public's airwaves, they should pay for the privilege.
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