Hearing Gives Hope to Retransmission Reform Advocates

FCC's Genachowski tosses back to Congress

The fun thing about an oversight hearing on the Federal Communications Commission is that there is always something for every constituent's pet issue, even if it's only for three minutes.

Tuesday's Senate Commerce committee hearing was no exception, dredging up the problem of blackouts caused when cable systems and TV stations can't agree on a carriage fee.

Soon after the hearing concluded late Tuesday, advocates for retransmission consent reform shoved a press release out the door applauding an exchange between Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who wanted something done about blackouts, and FCC chairman Julius Genachowski.

Even though Genachowski agreed that "it may be time to update those provisions to reduce the chances of those blackouts during retransmission consent negotiation," he also delivered the big caveat that he's said all along. "Our authority under the existing statute is limited. This may be an area where we need to work with the committee," Genachowski said.

In other words, it will be up to Congress to do something about blackouts of programming that are caused when the cable system and TV station can't agree on mutually favorable terms.

Still, the exchange gave retransmission reform advocates hope. "There clearly is a critical mass of bipartisan leaders who have concerns about outdated video regulations," said the American Television Alliance, a coalition that includes Time Warner Cable, DirecTV, Dish and Cablevision.

The FCC does have a rulemaking open that sort of addresses the issue, but it doesn't block blackouts. It's also been open for a couple of years.

Congress has danced around the issue, which has come up in a number of hearings, but so far yielded no action. Of course, you can bet that the next time a lawmaker can't watch the hometown football game, the press releases will fly.