House Hearing on Video Marketplace Turns Into Retrans Debate

Chairman Walden said he's keeping his options open

With the 32-day blackout of CBS on Time Warner Cable still very fresh in the minds of lawmakers, a House hearing titled “innovation versus regulation in the video marketplace” was quickly dominated by retransmission consent reform.

The hearing was the third the communications and technology subcommittee held on the reauthorization of the Satellite Home Viewer Act (Stela), which sunsets at the end of 2014 unless Congress extends it.

But for Wednesday’s hearing, chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) opened up the debate to a discussion of related aging communications laws, including the 1992 Cable Act that created retransmission consent.

“We have a satellite law that finds its origins in ensuring access to content for a fledgling industry, a cable law that was passed when cable controlled over 90 percent of the video market, and broadcast rules that ignore the rise of alternatives to over-the-air reception,” said Walden.

Walden said he expects to circulate a discussion draft “on the issues” no later than first quarter next year, but whether that turns out to be a clean bill on Stela or a bill on something else, like retransmission consent, he wouldn’t say.

“We just want to get all the issues on the table,” Walden said following the hearing. “We’re keeping our options open. But let’s face it, Stela has a deadline.”

Ranking member Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) managed to steer the hearing to focus on reforming retransmission consent. She used the opportunity to solicit feedback for a discussion draft of a bill released earlier this week to address blackouts by granting authority to the Federal Communications Commission to halt them.

“Since 2005, there have been 70 disputes involving 392 stations in 297 markets for a total of 3,853 days of retransmission blackouts,” Eshoo said. “That’s indefensible.”

She certainly got plenty of support from four of the six witnesses representing Dish Network, Suddenlink Communications, CenturyLink, and Public Knowledge, all members of the American Television Alliance, the coalition that has cranked up its lobbying for retrans reform.

The few Dem members that attended the hearing lined up behind the retrans reform advocates. Both Eshoo and Rep. Doyle were also distressed that CBS blocked their online content in the retrans standoff with Time Warner Cable, evidence, Eshoo said that the retrans issue is “metastasizing.”

Even a few GOP members fretted over consumers’ fate in blackouts. (No lawmaker likes them because they often hear from constituents.) But whether that will lead to support for Eshoo’s bill is hard to gauge.

Discussion of other media and communications was sparse. Walden, for example, brought up national broadcast TV ownership caps, currently set at 39 percent. “Broadcasters should have an ownership cap, but the other [media] shouldn’t?”

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who supports performance royalties on radio, blasted broadcasters for the seeming contradiction between their position on radio music royalties (against) with the position in retransmission consent to want to be fairly compensated for TV content. “It doesn’t square,” Blackburn said.

“Everyone wants to hang a car, caboose, everything they can, on,” Walden said.