Broadcasters use 'public safety' claims to distract from harms of retransmission consent

Broadcasters love to tout that broadcast TV is “free” and “always on.” However, for the 90 percent of Americans who use pay-TV, broadcast TV is neither. Pay-TV consumers will pay nearly $25 billion over the next five years for “free” TV. When pay-TV companies resist extortion, the broadcasters punish viewers. In 2013, there were a record-high 127 broadcaster blackouts.

If broadcast TV was always on, the National Association of Broadcasters wouldn’t fight the elimination of government handouts, like the requirement that broadcast TV stations be placed on the “basic tier” of cable.

In this forum on Tuesday, TVFreedom.com’s Rob Kenny stated that eliminating the basic tier mandate would “erode the fundamental premise that Washington’s lawmakers and policymakers have long stood by – preserving public safety as a core ‘first principle’ in U.S. communications policy.”

Enough with the hyperbole. Everyone supports public safety first and foremost. As Kenny himself points out in his column, cable and satellite TV providers are working with broadcasters to update the Emergency Alert System, which notifies the public of safety threats 24/7.

But broadcasters aren’t concerned with public safety. They’re trying to preserve their mammoth retransmission consent revenues.

Satellite and IPTV providers don’t have the same “basic tier” mandate, and yet, the sky has yet to fall. This despite the fact that these providers make up almost half of pay-TV providers. Public safety hasn’t been threatened.

Broadcasters are playing the “safety” card to maintain the status quo -- retransmission consent, which is increasingly being used to pay for expensive network programming from the national networks. Around half of all retransmission consent revenues go back to New York City to pay for sports and shows like American Idol.

Why should the government require consumers to pay for national sports and entertainment programming?

If broadcast TV was truly “always on”, then broadcasters would have no problem with cable customers who don’t want to pay for local TV but would rather use an antenna. Broadcasters desperately depend on pay-TV to deliver the eyeballs they need for advertising.

Further, if broadcasters were truly concerned with public safety and low-income households, they would not seek exorbitant retransmission consent fees. Don’t be fooled by their claim that broadcast TV stations receive less than cable networks. Broadcasters own at least half of the most expensive cable networks and tie carriage to ever-higher retrans fees for local stations.

As with retransmission consent, the basic tier provision was designed to support “localism,” another favorite card of the broadcasters. But today, nearly all of the network affiliates in major cities around the country are owned by out-of-state companies and only one out of two stations actually shows any "local" news.

Broadcasters can dress up our video rules under the guise of “public safety” and “localism,” but their true motive is the retransmission consent revenue that feed their companies to show big quarterly earnings.

At the very least, all this lobbying by broadcasters to keep the government subsidies should prohibit them from claiming that retransmission consent is the “free market” again.

Frederick, Ph.D., is vice president of public affairs at Porter Novelli and serves as spokesman for the American Television Alliance, an unprecedented coalition of consumer groups, cable, satellite, telephone companies, and independent programmers. ATVA is a client of Porter Novelli.