Senate panel floats plans for TV overhaul

Leaders of the Senate Commerce Committee have a new plan to overhaul the way cable, satellite and broadcast companies negotiate to bring channels to people’s televisions.

The “Local Choice” proposal would allow consumers to decide whether or not they want to pay fees that broadcast stations like NBC and CBS set for their channels. That would allow broadcasters to set their own price and offer themselves directly to consumers, lawmakers are arguing, and also ensure disputes between broadcasters and cable companies don’t lead to temporary station blackouts.

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“Local Choice would empower consumers by allowing them to choose the commercial broadcast content that they want to pay for as part of their pay-TV subscription, while ensuring that local broadcasters continue to receive full market value for their content,” a committee staffer said.

Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and ranking member Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) “think this proposal could end some of the most troubling aspects of the retransmission consent system for consumers,” the staffer added.

Under the plan, cable and satellite companies would still serve as a middleman for sending broadcast channels to subscribers who want them. 

Already, the proposal is facing pushback from broadcasters, which have staunchly defended the current system of negotiating for programming rights, known as retransmission consent.

The plan “represents a significant rewrite of the Communications Act,” National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton said in a statement, referring to the law governing TV, Internet and other communications services. 

“Given the shortness of time between now and the end of the congressional session, we question whether there is sufficient time for key committees in Congress to give this proposal the thorough review that is warranted,” he added.

The measure would likely be considered as part of to the panel’s upcoming reauthorization of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA), an otherwise uncontroversial bill allowing some rural satellite TV subscribers to receive broadcast channels.

Rockefeller has previously said that he intended to use STELA as a vehicle to make more robust changes to the current TV marketplace.

Reformers lauded the change.

The American Television Alliance, a group largely made up of cable and satellite companies, called the proposal an “innovative concept” and “a real win for consumers.”

The American Cable Association, which represents small cable companies, said the measure was “designed to advance the public interest in the receipt of over-the-air local broadcast stations from pay-TV providers.”

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