Dear broadcasters, please stop lying about video reform

TV broadcasters are so desperate to stop any update to our TV rules that they’re willing to say or do anything – including lying to the American public. This has been occurring for years, but in recent months, they have launched a misinformation campaign of epic proportions. 

A review of their claims in recent months proves that if broadcasters say one thing about TV reform, the exact opposite it likely true. In addition, rather than focusing on justifying the current retransmission consent subsidies they receive, broadcasters have launched numerous baseless attacks against pay-TV providers.

On Tuesday, broadcasters tried to compare the number of “pay-TV/Internet service failures” to what they falsely claimed were five TV blackouts caused by retransmission consent this year. In fact, there have actually been 32 TV blackouts, but putting that aside, the apples-oranges comparison is wildly misleading.

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First, the service failures the broadcasters are using are individual reports, which may or may not be accurate, but the TV blackout number does not refer to just individual reports. If we added up the number of pay-TV viewers affected by the 32 retrans blackouts in 2014, it would be in the millions!

Second, combining pay-TV disruptions with Internet disruptions is extremely problematic for any number of reasons, not the least of which that they are technically vastly different.

Finally, broadcasters intentionally cause TV blackouts in pursuit of money, while service disruptions by pay-TV providers are unintentional and ultimately hurt their business.

Broadcasters are also spreading lies about the basic tier and the effects of eliminating the requirement that cable companies carry local broadcast channels on the basic tier. For example, they’re fearmongering that eliminating this government subsidy would somehow negatively impact public, educational and government (PEG) access channels. The reality is that PEG stations would not be impacted by eliminating the basic tier mandate, nor would PBS or any station that elects “must carry.” Only for-profit broadcasters who are making billions of dollars on retransmission consent would be affected.

The basis for the broadcasters’ current national ad campaign is that “free” broadcast TV is in jeopardy.  Nothing is further from the truth. Over-the-air TV will exist regardless of whether retransmission consent is updated. Further, broadcast TV hasn’t really been “free” since retransmission consent was created in 1992. In the last eight years, retransmission consent fees have risen 119 times the rate of inflation. By 2019, broadcasters will demand an additional $25 billion for “free” TV. But the real costs are more than just the skyrocketing fees. The pursuit of retrans has led to a wave of TV station consolidation that has crushed diversity and killed local programming.

Broadcasters are also pointing the finger at pay-TV providers as the reason for high cable bills without noting that they are the biggest reason for rising rates – both in terms of retransmission consent and the cable channels that they own. Half of the top 50 most expensive cable channels are owned by the Big Four broadcast networks. Knowing the government requires consumers to pay for their local stations, broadcasters frequently tie carriage of their cable networks to the local TV stations.

The truth is that there is no legitimate defense for our outdated and broken system of video rules, so broadcasters have to tell lies and attack pay-TV providers in order to convince consumers and Congress that our video rules are still working.

Consumers deserve video rules written in the 21st Century, rules that work for them rather than against them. The Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA) represents the best opportunity for reform in the video marketplace. There is bipartisan support from members of Congress in both houses. The time is now.

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

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