Enough with TV broadcasters' efforts to keep us all in the 20th century

It’s understandably difficult for politicians to stand up to the National Association of Broadcasters. The NAB spends a ton of money lobbying on the Hill and can easily make life difficult back home for a politician who bucks the status quo of television and radio rules and regulations. It’s why our country remains so wedded to these antiquated one-way systems of communication. 

For years, broadcasters have attempted to quash every new form of video technology that comes along and disrupts the old model. If they had their way we’d all still be using rabbit ear antennas – which don’t really work in the first place. And they sure don’t want to give up any of the valuable spectrum space that we, the American people, gifted them, even though they’re doing nothing more than squatting on much of it.

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But let’s focus on their current campaign to prevent any reasonable reforms to our TV rules. The tactics they are using are Orwellian, at best, and downright shameful, at worst.

Broadcasters vitally depend on pay-TV providers to deliver eyeballs for their 20th Century-advertising-based model of network programming. They know that only a small fraction of TV viewers could receive crisp and clear signals via antenna, even if those viewers were willing to use an antenna. (Part of this stems from an old rule the broadcasters have lobbied to protect that allows them to classify signal availability based on if you can pick up the signal from a giant outdoor antenna, rather than the indoor antenna that 99.9 percent of Americans would use.) So it’s absurd for them to say that broadcast TV is “always on.”

So it’s a little short-sighted for the broadcasters to spend as much time bashing pay-TV as they do, but they’re desperate to preserve their ability to extort massive retransmission consent fees from pay-TV providers. And I don’t use the word extort lightly. But the broadcasters are aware that they can charge whatever they like and if pay-TV providers balk at the gouging, they can just pull the signal and angry TV viewers will always blame the pay-TV provider.

When broadcasters claim that these blackouts are caused by pay-TV providers, it’s utterly false. Broadcasters are the ones who take down their signals and prevent pay-TV providers from showing them. Moreover, when they claim that the blackouts all involve three companies, that’s because these companies are among the biggest providers and serve the most viewers, but more importantly, it’s because they have the resources to stand up to the broadcasters. There are literally hundreds of small cable companies around the country that cannot afford to engage in long retransmission consent disputes that cost them customers, so they bear the brunt of the broadcaster gouging.

Perhaps the most outrageous claim broadcasters make is that retransmission consent amounts to the “free market.” Nothing could be further from the truth. For instance, the government literally requires cable providers to purchase broadcast signals. How is that “free market”? Broadcasters have lobbied hard to ensure that consumers don’t have a choice of whether they want to pay for local TV channels. Hell, broadcasters have fought against even disclosing to consumers exactly how much they’re paying for local TV.

Worse, broadcasters take the channels that the government requires pay-TV providers to carry and ties them to the cable channels that they own. This enables them to run up the fees for both and leaves consumers wondering how they ended up with so many channels they don’t watch and are paying for.

Broadcasters own 25 of the top 50 most expensive cable networks and use them as leverage in retransmission consent negotiations. As for the local TV stations, broadcasters will demand $25 billion over the next five years for “local” TV, even as only one of two stations actually shows local news and half the retrans revenues go back to New York to pay for expensive network programming.

Right now in Washington, the National Association of Broadcasters is trying to have it both ways: they are separate and unique and deserve special treatment (such as government-mandated basic tier carriage), but at the same time they deserve to be paid like actors in a truly free market.

It’s time for Congress to stand up to broadcaster bullying once and for all and update our video rules so they actually reflect the 21st Century technology we have all come to love and depend on. Consumers should no longer be shackled to the greedy, government-subsidized beast that broadcasting has become.

Frederick, Ph.D., is spokesman for American Television Alliance, an unprecedented coalition of consumer groups, independent programmers, and pay-TV companies.