Updated: 12:56 p.m.
Federal Communications Commission member Robert McDowell Tuesday said those seeking major changes from the commission to the retransmission consent process involving broadcasters and cable and satellite providers will likely be disappointed.
During a discussion with National Association of Broadcasters President and CEO Gordon Smith at the group's state leadership conference, McDowell was asked about possible changes the FCC may make to the process under which cable operators and other multichannel video programming distributors negotiate the fees they pay broadcasters to use their programming.
The FCC is set to take up an item at its monthly meeting Thursday that seeks comment on possible changes to the current retransmission process. But McDowell noted that major changes will have to be made by Congress.
"The commission's power is limited to looking at the good-faith dichotomy," he said. However, he noted under current law, asking one of the parties to pay more for broadcasting content does not constitute "bad-faith" negotiations.
The issue has gained new attention in the last few years as broadcasters demands for higher fees for their programming have resulted in disputes that have led to short blackouts of programming for some cable subscribers.
In a speech later in the day at the NAB event, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., said he does not believe Congress needs to get involved at this point and would oppose legislation or FCC action requiring mandatory "carriage arrangements."
Cable firms have been pushing regulators and policy makers to require broadcasters to allow multichannel video programming distributors to continue to provide broadcasters' programming during negotiations over retransmission fees.
Both Upton and McDowell said the current process generally works and most negotiations do not end in a dispute. Upton, however, urged both sides to try to ensure that consumers are not adversely affected during negotiations.
Smith also asked about proposals to increase the amount of spectrum for wireless broadband through such proposals as incentive auctions, which involve sharing the proceeds from the auction of spectrum with broadcasters that voluntarily agree to relinquish some of their airwaves.
Smith outlined concerns broadcasters have about ensuring such incentive auctions are truly voluntary and that broadcasters who decide not to give up any of their spectrum are not harmed in the process of moving others who decide to participate in the process.
"How do you keep harmless those that don't volunteer," Smith asked.
McDowell was quick to note that Congress will craft the details of how incentive auctions will work. But added that he thinks "voluntary should be voluntary. I understand your concerns," he added, urging them to educate lawmakers about the potential impact of the proposal.
When asked about calls by the NAB and others for the FCC to conduct an inventory of all the spectrum available and how it's being used, McDowell said such a process might raise as many questions as answers. He added, however, that such an inventory could be "helpful."
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who sits on the Senate Commerce Committee and is also Smith's cousin, spoke at the NAB event and reiterated several times the importance of maintaining over-the-air television.
"Broadcasters rely on radio spectrum," Udall said. "We need to make sure that enough spectrum remains available for free over-the-air television to thrive. It's not something I take for granted."