by Jon Decker
In America we are accustomed to technology improving. Yet strangely, one technological problem innovation hasn’t solved is television blackouts — in fact, they are becoming more frequent.
In 2010, there were only 8 television blackouts. By 2019, that number had risen to 276. This increase is due to more frequent disagreements between Multichannel Video Program Distributors (cable, satellite and telco operators) and broadcasters over ever-growing fees that broadcast is demanding on the retransmission of content — fees that they were not entitled to until 1992.
As Dr. George S. Ford with the Phoenix Center noted:
Ever since the 1992 Cable Act allowed broadcasters to charge multichannel video distribution providers (MVPDs) for retransmission rights of their signals, broadcasters have demanded (and received) increasingly high retransmission fees. Between 2006 and 2019, retransmission fees rosefrom $215 million to $11.7 billion. Today, MVPDs pay about $11 per subscriber/month for over-the-air broadcast signals, raising consumers’ bills. The fee was $0 before the 1992 Cable Act.
This has been less of an issue for direct-broadcast satellite like Dish and DirecTV (now owned by AT&T) than cable because under a law called STELAR they have been licensed to negotiate with network outlets from other markets if they cannot reach an agreement with local affiliates. That license is set to expire June 1.
If this dispute is not resolved quickly, that shapes up as a date hundreds of thousands of consumers could soon lose local television coverage – and at a time where the fallback option of buying and installing an antenna is even less practical than usual. Regardless of where one falls on this debate — now is not the time to cut local news programming to any consumers.
In order to prevent these unnecessary and disruptive television blackouts from happening, House and Senate leadership should act quickly to negotiate a compromise that will ensure as few service interruptions as possible.
In an ideal world, we prefer the total free market approach to the issue long championed by Republican Whip Steve Scalise. But that’s a heavy lift. Under the circumstances there is a simpler option to delay the issue past the crisis – act on a request from AT&T to delay the sunset from June 1 to the end of the calendar year.
That would take the potential for disruption at the worst possible time off the table and should be included in one of the emergency coronavirus bills.