Jay Rockefeller Wants to Revolutionize How You Watch TV

On his way to retirement, the West Virginia Democrat looks to overhaul the video industry.

A visitor looks at Panasonic ETW5 energy efficient Smart TV flat-screen televisions at the Internationale Funkausstellung (IFA) 2012 consumer electronics trade fair on August 31, 2012 in Berlin, Germany. IFA 2012 is open to the public from today until September 5.
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
Add to Briefcase
Brendan Sasso
July 23, 2014, 5:32 p.m.

Sen. Jay Rock­e­feller is get­ting ready to settle in­to re­tire­ment. But be­fore he does, he’d like to upend the en­tire tele­vi­sion in­dustry.

Al­though his am­bi­tious gam­bit is un­likely to pay off in the fi­nal few months of his 30-year ca­reer, it could lay the ground­work for fu­ture con­gres­sion­al ac­tion that could change how Amer­ic­ans watch TV.

Rock­e­feller’s goal is to boost on­line video ser­vices like Net­flix to al­low them to be­come full-fledged com­pet­it­ors to cable gi­ants like Com­cast. In his view, con­sumers are pay­ing too much for too many chan­nels they don’t watch.

“Do people really want to see 500 chan­nels when all they really want to look at are eight, like me?” asked Rock­e­feller, the chair­man of the power­ful Sen­ate Com­merce Com­mit­tee, dur­ing a hear­ing last week on the fu­ture of the video mar­ket­place.

And things are only go­ing to get worse, Rock­e­feller fears, with Com­cast plan­ning to buy Time Warner Cable and AT&T set to takeover Dir­ecTV.

It’s a twist of his­tory for Rock­e­feller to be stand­ing against the mega-mer­gers of our era. He is, after all, the great grand­son and be­ne­fact­or of John D. Rock­e­feller, a man whose com­pany dom­in­ated the oil in­dustry to the point of in­spir­ing Con­gress’s first an­ti­trust laws more than a cen­tury ago.

But it’s not a new po­s­i­tion for the West Vir­gin­ia Demo­crat, who has been a long­time crit­ic of in­dustry con­sol­id­a­tion.

Now, with months left in his last term, the sen­at­or is gear­ing up for one last battle: He ar­gues that provid­ing reg­u­lat­ory pro­tec­tions to on­line video com­pan­ies would in­ject much-needed com­pet­i­tion in­to the TV in­dustry, driv­ing down prices and open­ing up new choices.

So what would your tele­vi­sion ex­per­i­ence look like if Rock­e­feller reigned su­preme?

On­line video ser­vices would be able to of­fer even more pro­gram­ming op­tions than cable and satel­lite com­pan­ies could. And with many TVs now hooked up to the In­ter­net, your ex­per­i­ence could be the same as it is with today’s gi­ant pro­viders — or you could watch on your phone, tab­let, or laptop. You could also watch more shows when you want, not when the chan­nels de­cide they should air. 

An ex­plo­sion of on­line op­tions could give you more lever­age to pay for what you ac­tu­ally want. It would be harder for a cable com­pany to force you in­to buy­ing a massive pack­age of hun­dreds of chan­nels you don’t watch if there’s an ar­ray of on­line choices at your fin­ger­tips.

To that end, Rock­e­feller last year in­tro­duced the Con­sumer Choice in On­line Video Act, which would over­haul the com­plex web of TV reg­u­la­tions to bol­ster the on­line video in­dustry.

His bill would bar cable com­pan­ies, which provide both In­ter­net ac­cess and TV pro­gram­ming, from dis­crim­in­at­ing against on­line video com­pet­it­ors. It would also lim­it the abil­ity of com­pan­ies to use con­trac­tu­al agree­ments to block web­sites from buy­ing ac­cess to video con­tent.

At last week’s video hear­ing, Rock­e­feller put it mildly when he said his bill “caused some angst on K Street.”

Cable com­pan­ies ar­gue that their in­dustry is already plenty com­pet­it­ive, while the broad­cast TV net­works are aghast at a pro­vi­sion that would pro­tect the video site Aereo (the net­works claim the site was steal­ing their con­tent, and the Su­preme Court agreed in a rul­ing earli­er this year).

Rock­e­feller’s bill has gone nowhere. But he is now eye­ing a le­gis­lat­ive vehicle to push through his re­forms.

The Satel­lite Tele­vi­sion Ex­ten­sion and Loc­al­ism Act, or STELA, is set to ex­pire at the end of the year. The law al­lows about 1.5 mil­lion satel­lite TV sub­scribers in rur­al areas to ac­cess broad­cast chan­nels, and many law­makers con­sider the reau­thor­iz­a­tion bill “must pass” le­gis­la­tion.

The Ju­di­ciary and Com­merce com­mit­tees in both cham­bers share jur­is­dic­tion over STELA. The Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee already ap­proved a “clean” up­date that doesn’t make any oth­er changes to the video in­dustry.

The House passed a reau­thor­iz­a­tion bill Tues­day that makes cer­tain minor tweaks to give cable com­pan­ies more lever­age in ne­go­ti­ations with broad­casters.

But Rock­e­feller has big­ger am­bi­tions. He is work­ing with Sen. John Thune, the Sen­ate Com­merce Com­mit­tee’s top Re­pub­lic­an, to at­tach oth­er reg­u­lat­ory re­forms to the bill. They plan to un­veil their le­gis­la­tion in Septem­ber.

In­dustry lob­by­ists are anxious about what the com­mit­tee will pro­duce, but Rock­e­feller and his aides have been tight-lipped.

Speak­ing off the Sen­ate floor Tues­day, Thune said Rock­e­feller “re­cog­nizes some of the lim­it­a­tions that we have right now just from a time stand­point.”

He said aides are still “bat­ting around ideas” but that many of the pro­vi­sions in Rock­e­feller’s on­line video bill would be a “heavy lift” in the wan­ing weeks of the Con­gress. The South Dakota Re­pub­lic­an was re­luct­ant to dis­cuss spe­cif­ics, but he said the lan­guage in the House ver­sion of STELA is “in play” in the Sen­ate, as well as some broad­er reg­u­lat­ory changes.

But even if Rock­e­feller isn’t able to jam through his on­line video bill as an at­tach­ment to STELA, his bill is likely to shape dis­cus­sions for years to come. Law­makers are ex­pec­ted to be­gin work next year on the first ma­jor re­write of com­mu­nic­a­tions law since 1996.

“My guess is that [on­line video] is something that we prob­ably will dis­cuss a lot, but prob­ably in the con­text of a big­ger tele­com reau­thor­iz­a­tion,” Thune said. “It’ll be in­ter­est­ing to see if someone picks that mantle up.”

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