Two Bills Introduced in Congress to Stem TV Blackouts

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Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Ca.)

UPDATED: One piece of legislation would give the FCC authority to keep stations on cable and satellite during retrans disputes, the other would kill retrans altogether.

Two separate but similar bills were introduced (or re-introduced) Thursday in the U.S. House of Representatives, designed to eliminate or curtail television blackouts caused by retransmission consent disputes between broadcasters and the cable and satellite distributors who re-sell their signals.

The Video Choice Act, written by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Ca.) and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Ca.), both of whom serve districts in and around Silicon Valley, is intended to prevent blackouts by giving the FCC authority to authorize carriage of a TV signal during the dispute.

The Video Choice Act would also prohibit broadcasters from using the leverage of other video programming they control (as CBS did with Showtime in the dispute with Time Warner Cable in August) to force an agreement. It would also prohibit a broadcaster from blocking online content as a negotiating tactic (as CBS also did in August).

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It would also mandate that cable operators offer subscribers a separate tier of channels consisting only of TV stations that elected to negotiate for retrans consent, and it would require the FCC to do a study of the cost of sports programming.

"My bill would put an end to broadcast television blackouts and ensure consumers aren't held hostage by a dispute they have no control over," said Eshoo in a statement. "Recurring TV blackouts coupled with the rising cost of broadcast television programming has left consumers frustrated and looking to Congress and the FCC for answers."

"Internet users and television customers should not be held hostage when business negotiation disputes arise between cable and content providers," said Lofgren in a statement. "It's unfair to subject consumers to service blackouts or blocked online content."

A second bill, called The Next Generation Television Marketplace Act, was re-introduced by Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Senator Jim DeMint (R-So. Carolina), would eliminate retransmission consent and must carry rules.

In return, under their bill, the government would kill the compulsory licensing requirements that became law in 1976 that force cable and satellite to deal with broadcasters demands for compensation. Broadcasters could still get compensated for their content if cable/satellite distributors opt to carry their programming.

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"Decades-old broadcast, cable, and satellite laws dramatically restrict access and limit consumer choice," Scalise said in a statement. ”Broadcast television is a unique and important platform. Valuable local affiliate programming, strongly demanded by consumers including myself, is proof that archaic government regulations are unnecessary today. Instead, traditional copyright law should facilitate the distribution of this programming so that broadcasters are rightfully paid for their content, rather than for the use of a signal. 

CBS had no immediate comment on the two bills.

However, National Association of Broadcaster's President and CEO Gordon Smith said in a statement: "Clearly, these two pieces of legislation are utterly inconsistent with each other, and we find it sad that pay-TV companies who built their broadband, voice and video businesses on the backs of local TV signals now balk at the notion of paying a fair market rate for the most-watched programming on television. NAB and America's local broadcasters respectfully oppose both of these bills. We will constructively engage with policymakers seeking to improve upon a retransmission consent law that is now working over 99 percent of the time."

Another broadcast network source said their sense is that neither bill has much chance of ever becoming law; and noted that they both lack the extensive number of co-sponsors that typically accompany successful legislation.

However, the two bills won endorsement by groups supportive of cable and satellite distributors including the American Television Alliance, which in part is supported by Time Warner Cable and Dish Network.

"Blackouts have increased 38% over 2012 and consumers around the country were hit with 12 more blackouts just this past weekend," said the ATVA in their statement. "There have been 126 blackouts to date and the year is not over yet. We encourage Congress to consider both pieces of legislation and take action soon to prevent further harm to consumers."

The American Cable Association in a statement said the bill would "provide relief to consumers harmed by outdated retransmission consent rules that broadcasters' relentlessly abuse, highlighted by a record number of TV signal blackouts and escalating price demands well in excess of inflation."