It’s Christmas Eve in Montana. You turn on your TV for a time-honored viewing of It’s A Wonderful Life. But you can’t find the Christmas classic, or even the NBC affiliate that’s supposed to be carrying it it. Or perhaps you’re in North Carolina, hoping to watch some NBA basketball after the Christmas feast. Or northern California, settling in to watch your 49ers finish out the regular season. And you can’t.
For viewers in eight media markets, TV blackouts are coming at an unfortunate time. The real Grinch, say cable and satellite advocates, is broadcast conglomerates trying to steal consumers’ money by hiking up prices to carry their stations. Sorry, Scrooge, broadcasters respond, but you’re to blame for your unwillingness to pay a fair amount for our service.
So, what’s the cause of all of this bickering? The disputes stem from an issue most people don’t give much thought — retransmission consent agreements. Current law requires cable and satellite providers to meet every few years with local TV stations to determine how much they’ll pay to keep the affiliate’s programming on their lineup. If they can’t settle on a number, subscribers to that regional provider lose access to the station until the negotiation is resolved.
In Montana, for example, Bonten Media Group — which owns NBC Montana — is at odds with DISH Network over payment for its programming. DISH claims the group is trying to triple its prices; NBC Montana said that number is misleading and its demands are still below the prices some major cable channels command. In the meantime, DISH customers in Missoula, Butte and Bozeman will be without Sunday Night Football, Parks and Recreation and all other NBC programming.
“These blackouts are increasing rapidly because these broadcasters realize that they can play these TV companies off of one another,” said Brian Frederick, spokesman for the American Television Alliance. ATVA’s partners include a number of cable and satellite companies, such as DISH, DirecTV and Time Warner Cable.
The problem, Frederick said, is when broadcast companies force price hikes by blacking out stations on one company and telling customers to find a new provider. The company, lacking a popular channel and losing viewers, is then pressured into a bad agreement to avoid losing market share. Then the same tactic is used on the next provider when its retransmission consent agreement is re-negotiated.
Those claims are part of a manufactured crisis, countered the National Association of Broadcasters’ Dennis Wharton. Satellite and cable companies are unwilling to pay a fair price, he said, and are resorting to disruptions — NAB doesn’t like the term “blackout” — in hopes of pressuring Congress to intervene.
“Their motivation here is to try to get the TV viewers who are pawns in their little game here to call Congress and say, ‘I want my TV back,’” Wharton said.
Will it work? That remains to be seen. Sources on both sides said they expect Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., to unveil legislation soon that would eliminate retransmission consent rules. Scalise proposed similar legislation with then-Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., in 2011. Meanwhile, Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., is pushing a bill that would allow the Federal Communications Commission to grant interim carriage of stations while negotiations are ongoing. It would also give consumers choices on purchasing broadcast stations through cable and satellite providers. It’s unclear if either bill can gain traction in the House.
ATVA has not endorsed any specific legislation — “There’s a lot of potential solutions,” Frederick said — but the group supports efforts by members of Congress to reform the current law. It’s also calling on the FCC to do more to “protect consumers.”
Wharton said that push for reform has led to more viewers getting blacked out so that satellite and cable companies can use them as an example of why the rules are unfair. He advised blacked-out viewers to find a new provider or even use their antenna — whatever it takes to watch their Christmas specials.
What We're Following See More »
When it comes to name-calling among America's upper echelon of politicians, there may be perhaps no greater spat than the one currently going on between Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Donald Trump. While receiving an award Tuesday night, she continued a months-long feud with the presumptive GOP presidential nominee. Calling him a "small, insecure moneygrubber" who probably doesn't know three things about Dodd-Frank, she said he "will NEVER be president of the United States," according to her prepared remarks."We don't know what Trump pays in taxes because he is the first presidential nominee in 40 years to refuse to disclose his tax returns. Maybe he’s just a lousy businessman who doesn’t want you to find out that he’s worth a lot less money than he claims." It follows a long-line of Warren attacks over Twitter, Facebook and in interviews that Trump is a sexist, racist, narcissistic loser. In reply, Trump has called Warren either "goofy" or "the Indian"—referring to her controversial assertion of her Native American heritage.
The House on Tuesday voted 403-12 "to pass an overhaul to the nation’s chemical safety standards for the first time in four decades. The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act aims to answer years of complaints that the Environmental Protection Agency lacks the necessary authority to oversee and control the thousands of chemicals being produced and sold in the United States. It also significantly clamps down on states’ authorities, in an effort to stop a nationwide patchwork of chemical laws that industry says is difficult to deal with."
"Leaders of the Republican Party have begun internal deliberations over making fundamental changes to the way its presidential nominees are chosen, a recognition that the chaotic process that played out this year is seriously flawed and helped exacerbate tensions within the party." Among the possible changes: forbidding independent voters to cast ballots in Republican primaries, and "doubling the number of early states to eight."
Citing the unpredictable nature of this primary season and the possible leverage they could bring at the convention, John Kasich is hanging onto his 161 delegates. "Kasich sent personal letters Monday to Republican officials in the 16 states and the District of Columbia where he won delegates, requesting that they stay bound to him in accordance with party rules."
"Speaker Paul Ryan is changing the rules of how the House will consider spending measures to try to prevent Democrats from offering surprise amendments that have recently put the GOP on defense. ... Ryan announced at a House GOP conference meeting Tuesday morning that members will now have to submit their amendments ahead of time so that they are pre-printed in the Congressional Record, according to leadership aides." The change will take effect after the Memorial Day recess.