Lawmakers Ponder Blackouts in Senate Hearing

No consensus, debate to continue

Like consumers, Senate Commerce Committee members don’t like blackouts on cable systems. But they aren’t sure what, if anything, to do about it.

After two years of trying to badger the Federal Communications Commission to act on solving blackouts, lawmakers have finally come around to the realization that the FCC doesn’t have the authority to do anything.

In what will probably be the first of many hearings on the Cable Act—the law often blamed for blackouts—lawmakers today tried to sort through the contentious and often uncompromising positions of broadcasters and cable systems.

Perhaps knowing what sort of tinderbox he had sitting before him, chairman John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) tried to steer the debate to the plight of the consumer caught in the middle.

“Overheated rhetoric alleging greed and bad faith is of little comfort to someone paying for services they are not getting,” Rockefeller said.

In Rockefeller’s view, the Cable Act hasn’t achieved its goal to bring more video services at lower costs to consumers.

“Consumers have to pay too much and have very little choice in picking the content they receive. Rates continue to go up faster than the rate of inflation year in and year out,” said Rockefeller, who has yet to offer any legislative solution. “They are tired of it. I am tired of it.”

So far, there’s only one piece of legislation addressing blackouts. A bill introduced late last year by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) would not only eliminate the Cable Act, but also the compulsory license (a fee aggregated by the government to pay program producers). The bill, called the Next Generation TV Act, would also eliminate all the media ownership rules, lifting the ban on how many TV stations a company could own and the ban on owning both a TV station and newspaper in a single market.

“It’s not our role to manage or control any business or industry in this country. My bill removes government intervention to negotiate contracts,” said DeMint. 

But DeMint’s approach, especially the lifting of media ownership rules, won’t fly on the other side of the aisle. “I want to preserve local broadcasting,” said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) “There ought to be a way to set up a process. Consumers ought to be able have access. I don’t think the government needs to intervene, but a fair competitive structure can be set up. I would not support a radical proposal to eliminate retransmission consent and compulsory license all together,” Kerry said.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) summed it up best. “There will be a lot of disagreement about the way forward.”