Broadcasters hunt for allies in fight against cable companies

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Facing attacks on all sides, broadcasters have invited public interest groups to join them in a new campaign aimed at vilifying cable companies for rising monthly bills.

The broadcasters advocacy group TVfreedom began a campaign Wednesday aimed at persuading eight public interest groups to take on their longtime foe, the cable and satellite industry.

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In a public letter to the groups — including Public Knowledge, Free Press and Consumers Union — TVfreedom Director of Public Affairs Robert Kenny asked for help calling attention to what he said are the dishonest billing practices of cable and satellite companies.

“Punitive practices, such as erroneous overbilling, equipment rental fees and inflated or unnecessary ‘extra’ charges, are all contributing to rising monthly cable and satellite TV bills for American consumers nationwide,” Kenny wrote.

The letter asked for the groups’ help in “developing an open and collaborative process that will help increase the awareness of Washington’s decision-makers regarding the myriad of pay-TV business practices that cause harm to consumers.”

Kenny said he hopes TVfreedom and the public interest groups will jointly write to members of Congress, the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, asking policymakers to look into the billing issue.

“Some members of Congress are already concerned about this,” Kenny said, pointing to comments from Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who recently raised concerns about increasing and deceptive cable bills.

Kenny hopes to get other policymakers involved. “Part of this is about education and awareness,” he said.

The outreach campaign comes at a time when broadcasters are facing off against cable and satellite companies over a push in Congress to update legislation that governs the marketplace for video programming.

Currently, cable and satellite companies have to compensate broadcasters for broadcast programming that would be free over-the-air with an antenna.

When a cable or satellite company fails to reach an agreement with a broadcaster over compensation, the broadcaster can “blackout” its broadcast and affiliated cable channels from the cable or satellite company’s subscribers.

While broadcasters say this “retransmission consent” system allows for fair compensation for video content that’s expensive to produce, cable and satellite companies — and their vocal allies on Capitol Hill — say the system gives broadcasters too much power to punish consumers if cable and satellite companies don’t pay up.

Some members of Congress are dead set on shifting the system away from broadcaster control, either through a process to reauthorize a satellite law this year or through a multiyear effort to update communications law taking place in the House.

Virtually every major player in the debate — including members of Congress and the public interest groups that received TVfreedom’s letter — understands that the current system is “tilted in favor of the broadcasters,” according to Brian Frederick, a spokesman for the American Television Alliance.

Frederick’s group includes cable and satellite companies such as Time Warner Cable, Charter Communications, DISH Network and DIRECTV.

Frederick called TVfreedom’s outreach effort “a smoke screen trying to distract from skyrocketing retransmission consent fees” and increasingly frequent blackouts for consumers.

Rather than criticizing the cable and satellite industry’s billing practices, broadcasters should stop demanding high fees from cable and satellite companies and pledge to end blackouts, Frederick said.

“They could end blackouts. Blackouts are entirely something that they’re in control of.”

Frederick said he was confident the public interest groups receiving TVfreedom’s plea would be “smart enough to see that this is just an effort to distract.”

“Most of the groups agree with us that [the current video marketplace] is something that is broken and needs to be fixed,” he said.

But TVfreedom’s Kenny said he’s optimistic that the public interest groups will want to team up with the broadcast industry on the issue of high and deceptive cable and satellite bills.

“The common ground we have here ends up being about the consumer,” he said.

Public interest groups, for their part, realize they’re being asked to take sides in the fight between the two giant industries.

“We always want anyone on our side, we just won’t change our position to get those people on our side,” said Matt Wood, policy director at Free Press.

Wood pointed to his group’s recent efforts to highlight practices by both broadcasters and cable companies that harm consumers.

“We try to hold all industries accountable,” he said. “We don’t try to pick and choose between cable and broadcasters.”

John Bergmayer, senior staff attorney at Public Knowledge, said he’s happy to receive support from the two warring camps if it means the issues get more attention overall.

“I don’t necessarily think it’s a zero-sum game,” he said.

“We think that broadcasters generally have the wrong approach on the retransmission issue” but are correct that cable and satellite bills need to be less deceptive, he said.

“If they want to make hay out of this issue, I’m all for it.”