Ad Wars Heat Up in Washington Over Retransmission Reform

Both sides target two House subcommittee hearings

Now that CBS and Time Warner Cable have resolved their retransmission consent differences (for now), the rhetoric is turning to Washington, where ads have been popping up in Capitol Hill publications on both sides of the issue.

The timing of the ads, running Tuesday and Wednesday in Capitol Hill publications, is no coincidence, placed to catch the attention of lawmakers as two House subcommittees hold back-to-back hearings on the reauthorization of a satellite bill, which has quickly turned into hearings on a variety of TV and video issues.

In both hearings, retrans reform advocates are taking the opportunity to make their case that reform of the 1992 Cable Act that created retransmission consent is long overdue. 

During yesterday's hearing before the House Judiciary subcommittee on courts, intellectual property and the Internet, no less than three of the seven witnesses were members of the American Television Alliance; three will appear Wednesday before the commerce subcommittee on communications and technology.

ATVA's coalition of companies such as Time Warner Cable, Dish and DirecTV are using an end-of-summer theme, complete with a pair of colorful flip-flops, to make the case that over the years, broadcasters talked out of both sides of their mouths.

One ad takes two quotes from CBS CEO Les Moonves, who on the one hand said that his company is only looking for fair value for its TV content, but also said it was absurd to suggest radio stations should pay royalties for music over the air.

The contradiction wasn't lost on Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) during Tuesday's hearing, who said, "It's unfair for broadcasters not to support radio performance fees, given their position on getting paid for TV signals."

Broadcasters are fighting back. Their ad screams one statistic: 90 percent—the percent of retransmission consent blackouts that are caused by just three companies, Time Warner Cable, DirecTV and Dish.

"We thought it was important to point out that those advocating for retransmission reform have caused the breakdowns in negotiations and are the ones bankrolling the ATVA campaign," said Dennis Wharton, evp for the National Association of Broadcasters. "They're spending tens of millions of dollars on this campaign, rather than negotiate in the marketplace. These ads are designed to point out the collusive nature of their actions."