Cable Disputes Prove FCC Now Lacks Teeth

To gently paraphrase the letter on my desk from one of my favorite FCC commissioners: “About those retransmission regs? Yeah, they’re not working out the way we thought.”

No kidding.

The situation is reminiscent of when, in 1996, the Federal Communications Commission deregulated cable, saying it would decrease rates, and the industry responded by sending you a bigger monthly bill.

So here we are now, stuck in the middle of another retransmission argument, with no recourse. This time, the battle’s between Cablevision and WPIX.

The New York State Public Service Commission claims you’re owed nothing for loss of programming during disputes like these because you buy programming on cable by the bundle, not a la carte.

For its part, the FCC admits retransmission is a murky area and clarity, in reality, will come from the industry lucky enough to employ services of the best lobbyists.

The  current situation simply underscores how serving the public need and convenience has become a casualty of the Information Age. The irony is that this is exactly when we need it the most.

What’s interesting in this latest dispute is the silence surrounding the situation. In 2010, the ruckus between WABC-TV and Cablevision caused New Yorkers to miss some of the Oscars, but gave us plenty of propaganda in the way of television and radio spots that argued the case for each side during negotiations. Later in 2010, nearly 2 million of us lost programming again, when Cablevision and FOX 5 and its sister station, my9, agreeed to disagree just before the World Series.

To be fair, New York’s not special in this regard. Disputes around the country are continuously causing the public to lose programming, as contracts between cable companies and broadcasters come up for renewal. The heart of the argument is, of course, money, but who owes what to whom is the mystery when one party has the content and the other party provides access to the audience.

While the pols try to revamp current regulation to make retransmission a clear-cut issue, the slowness of response, combined with the precedent that losing programming, is now nothing more than business as usual, illustrates the underlying problem of the FCC. Its effectiveness is missing and its value is lost, because technology has termiated its rules to maintain responsibility.

The best solution to fee disputes would be to fine both parties each day programming is missing. It would be the beginning of giving the public back its rights.

Jaci Clement is executive director of the Fair Media Council and a regular contributor to Long Island Business News. She may be reached at jaci@fairmediacouncil.org.

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