FCC to Propose New Rules for Program Disputes

The head of the agency's media bureau said: "A principal concern is to protect consumers when talks break down."

NEW YORK -- The FCC will work on a proposal for new rules to protect consumers from program blackouts in disputes between broadcasters and TV providers, which have led to several high-profile showdowns this year.

William Lake, head of the agency's media bureau, said Wednesday that the FCC will begin considering an update on rules governing these so-called retransmission consent talks and its role in them early next year.

"A principal concern is to protect consumers when talks break down," he said during a speech in Washington whose text was later posted on the agency's website.

The news earned applause from cable operators, which have lost networks temporarily in disputes, and Senator John Kerry who had worked on a draft bill for new rules in Congress.

Kerry said the FCC's step means he won't introduce his legislative proposal this month as planned.

"Today’s announcement recognizes that when disputes end in lost signals and dark television screens, no one wins,” he said.

In October, Fox programming went dark for 3 million Cablevision Systems cable subscribers as part of an intense two-week showdown.

Cablevision repeatedly called for FCC intervention to restore Fox signals, but FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said he does not think his agency has enough powers to protect consumers in the case of impasses.

Observers expect the FCC could focus on better defining what constitutes "good faith" negotiations, which both sides in a program dispute are supposed to adhere to. The agency may also update notice requirements. Currently, cable operators must give consumers 30 days notice of a potential service interruption, but broadcasters and satellit companies don't have to do that.

“We appreciate the FCC agreeing to take a thoughtful look at a system we believe is broken and applaud Senator Kerry for his leadership on this issue," Cablevision said in a statement.