TV Blackouts on the Rise Again
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Cable subscribers across the country may be wondering what is going on when they receive notices across their screens threatening the potential loss of one channel or another. The comments encourage the viewer to contact their local cable or satellite operator if they want to continue watching their favorite shows, making it appear that only the service provider is at fault.
However, the issue is more complex than viewers could know from these messages. The (usually temporary) loss of a channel is the result of negotiations stemming from retransmission disputes. The Cable Act of 1992 amended the 1934 Communications Act by prohibiting cable operators and other video programming distributors, also knowns as multi-channel video programming distributors (MVPDs) from rebroadcasting or “retransmitting” commercial television, low power television and radio broadcast signals without first obtaining the originating broadcaster’s permission.
Over the intervening years, the law has led to a multitude of retransmission disputes, channel blackouts, and generally frustrated viewers. These blackouts reached an all-time high of 193 blackouts in 2015. According to the American Television Alliance, 2017 seems to be on track to achieve or possibly exceed that number, with 48 blackouts occurring in the first two weeks of the year alone.
Because of advances in technology, broadcasters no longer deal with a cable monopoly for broadcasting their signals. Broadcasters choose among multiple providers ranging from cable to satellite, to fiber optic networks. Consumers also have a choice in how they view video content, whether through their local cable provider, over the internet, or through a digital antenna receiver.
The Cable Act, which was created before there were numerous choices to view content, was intended to address concerns over cable TV rate service increases following deregulation and fears among broadcasters that they would need to negotiate terms with a cable monopoly to reach their intended viewers. The law gave broadcasters the opportunity to choose between guaranteed carriage rights (must-carry), or allowing them to insist that MVPDs obtain and pay for a station’s consent to retransmit the station to local subscribers. The law also provided broadcasters the opportunity to make a new election between these two options every three years, and when they choose the latter approach, negotiations must ensue. When these negotiations come to an impasse, the threat of disrupted service occurs.
In the 112th and 113th Congresses, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) offered legislation to address the underlying cause of service disruptions, called the Next Generation Television Marketplace Act of 2011, which would repeal outdated regulatory schemes such as must-carry, retransmission consent, media ownership restrictions, and compulsory copyright. While this legislation was never enacted into law, it does provide a starting point for the new Congress to begin addressing laws that have led to these retransmission disputes.