Senator Proposes New Rules for TV Fee Feuds

Says program blackouts hurt consumers, current system is "broken"

NEW YORK - Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) on Tuesday sent a letter to FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, outlining details of draft legislation that he plans to submit later this year to protect consumers from programming interruptions during carriage fee disputes like the current one between Cablevision Systems and News Corp./Fox.

Kerry's proposal calls for both a broadcaster and distributor to go through a process with the FCC to ensure good faith negotiations without broadcast signals being pulled. The process would also include binding arbitration as an option.

If both sides are found to have negotiated in good faith, but couldn’t reach agreement, the FCC could request binding arbitration under the Kerry proposal. If one party refuses, consumers would be informed about the difference in offers “so that consumers can judge for themselves who was making the fairest offer” before a loss of signal, Kerry said.

"It's not our job to take sides, but it is our responsibility to help find a better way forward," Kerry said, calling the current retransmission consent system "broken."

Kerry argued that he had to get active given high levels of public awareness and the FCC's lack of action so far despite promises from Genachowski that his agency would review current retrans regulation.

"A petition that seeks to modify the FCC's rules for retransmission consent negotiations has been pending before the FCC since March 2010," Kerry said. "The FCC has had sufficient time to consider the comments that have been filed on that petition and begin the process to revise its rules. But in the absence of FCC action, I feel a responsibility to begin to consider the smartest, least intrusive actions to reform the law."

A spokeswoman for the FCC declined comment.

As reported, Kerry plans to introduce the legislative proposal during the "lame duck" session of Congress, meaning during the period between the mid-term elections and the start of the new Congress in January.