WASHINGTON U.S. regulators proposed rules on Thursday to protect consumers from service disruptions when talks stall over fees cable and satellite providers must pay for broadcast content.
The Federal Communications Commission will seek comment on changes to its rules on retransmission consent, the negotiations over how much TV distributors should pay for the right to carry the free-to-air signals of ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC.
While most retransmission consent negotiations go on quietly behind closed doors, the disputes drew widespread attention in November after Cablevision Systems Corp failed to reach a timely programing deal with News Corp for Fox programing.
More than 3 million New York-area homes experienced a 15-day blackout of local Fox news, the opening of baseball's World Series and popular shows like "House," "Glee" and "The Simpsons."
The FCC largely stays out of fights over broadcast program carriage, but after the Fox-Cablevision spat the agency pledged to explore actions to protect customers from blackouts.
"Consumers have real and understandable concerns," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said at the agency's open meeting.
Genachowski said it was time to take a fresh look and explore measures the agency could take to make retransmission consent operate more smoothly and serve consumers.
The proposal would provide more guidance to broadcasters and cable and satellite providers on what constitutes good-faith negotiations, and would require notifying consumers of the potential of a blackout within 30 days of a retransmission agreement expiring.
The FCC also seeks comment on other actions interested parties believe it should consider to mitigate service disruptions.
But Genachowski warned broadcasters and cable companies against waiting for the U.S. government to intervene.
"No one should interpret our initiation of this proceeding as a signal or an excuse to drag their feet on reaching retransmission consent agreements," Genachowski said.
FCC AUTHORITY LIMITED
Some industry players want the FCC to go further in protecting broadcast rights, but the agency warned of its limited authority.
The American Cable Association advocated an "extreme makeover" of broadcast program carriage rules that the trade group said are outdated and benefit "price-gouging TV stations" at the expense of consumers.
Retransmission consent "inflicts serious economic harm on consumers," said Matthew Polka, ACA's president and chief executive.
But sweeping changes would require Congress to broaden the agency's statutory authority, the FCC said.
FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said the agency cannot intervene beyond good-faith considerations even though "the public is not being served with channels that are dark due to monetary standoffs."
Congress must overhaul the retransmission consent rules before the FCC can take bolder steps. "Short of that, we will do the best with what we have," Clyburn said.
Still, public interest groups criticized the FCC's proposal, saying it did not go far enough.
"The FCC needs to do more to help consumers, instead of just helping the cable companies and broadcasters," said Joel Kelsey, political adviser for the public interest group Free Press.
(Reporting by Jasmin Melvin; Editing by Gary Hill)