EDITORIAL: It’s time to reform retransmission rules.

OK, let’s talk about TV. The rules don’t always make sense.

  • A local station can force the cable and satellite companies to carry them if they give the signal away for free.
  • The same station can decide to charge for its signal, but if they charge, they can’t force pay-tv companies to carry them.
  • If there’s no contract, the local channel can demand that pay-TV companies “black them out.”

All of this comes under the banner of “retransmission consent” laws. These laws were mostly written in the 1980s and 1990s when cable TV was the hottest thing on the block and no one had even heard of the internet. The world has changed a little bit since mullets roamed the earth, but these laws haven’t.

The problem is that the public isn’t being served. There were a record 91 blackouts in 2012 due to companies not being able to come to an agreement. That’s way too many. Millions of people are being affected.

It’s time to reform these laws and we’re not the only people who think so. Advocacy groups, regular folks… there’s hardly anyone who thinks these blackouts are good for regular subscribers.

It’s a good idea suggested by other blogs as well… simply force both parties into mediation if no one can agree on anything and the contract is less than 5 days away from running out. It’s simple and it works. At the end of the contract period if the two parties are still unable to come to any agreement, the mediator would have the option of forcing a contract extension to the channel can stay on the air, or allowing both parties to walk away cleanly and start fresh with a new contract some time down the road.

It’s one thing when cable channels are involved; that usually means the loss of a favorite show. When local broadcasters are involved it gets more hairy. Local broadcasters have a choice: they can give their signals away for free in exchange for guaranteed carriage or they can charge for their signals and give up the promise of guaranteed carriage. Most opt for the money.

In a case where local channels are involved, the only fair option is an automatic extension of the existing contract. People need their local news. Blackouts don’t help anyone.

These bad faith contract talks, usually spurred on by some content provider asking for a triple digit raise in fees, don’t help anyone. All they do is create a negative image of the whole industry, at the time when most pay-TV providers are facing shrinking profits and declining subscriber bases. It’s time for the whole industry to wise up and realize that these petty fights will hurt them most of all.