Congress mulls overhauling video rules

ADVERTISEMENT
But he warned that imposing new regulations could stifle innovation, and suggested a better solution would be to tear down outdated regulations of traditional video technologies. 

"If we’re not going to apply the old regime to the new participants, we must recognize the inequity of continuing to apply it to the traditional players," Walden said.

Public Knowledge President Gigi Sohn, who traditionally argues for robust government intervention to protect consumers, agreed that Congress should scrap a host of outdated rules.

In her testimony, she urged lawmakers to "clear away much of the regulatory underbrush that holds back the evolution of the video marketplace."

Lawmakers took aim at retransmission consent rules, which govern how much cable and satellite providers pay to carry broadcast television stations.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), the subcommittee's ranking member, said that when negotiations break down and channels are blacked out, it is the consumer that loses. She pointed to a particularly high-profile blackout that prevented millions of households from watching the first two games of the 2010 World Series.

Charlie Ergen, chairman of Dish Network, called retransmission disputes an "unfair food fight" because customers can switch to a different video provider, but the ratings for stations only matter during "sweeps weeks" that measure viewership. 

Ergen noted that the government entrusts broadcast stations with a slice of the public airwaves to be used in the public's interest.

David Barrett, president of broadcast company Hearst Television, argued that retransmission rates have not risen significantly, and that they are necessary to preserve important local programming.

He argued that broadcasters are especially essential during emergencies because they can provide critical safety information to their communities.

Some lawmakers criticized broadcasters for suing to block Dish Network's new video recording service, Hopper.

Barrett said Hopper, which allows viewers to skip over commercials with the push of a button, violates copyright law, but Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) said it seems the service just improves upon existing technologies. 

DeGette also suggested Hopper could help viewers to skip over "shock and awe" political attack ads in the fall.

But Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), a longtime advocate of local broadcasting, took the opposite view. 

"The Hopper potentially limits the ability of every member of this subcommittee ... to reach constituents with ads to help them make up their minds," Dingell said.

Dingell cut off Ergen when he tried to defend his company's video service, and the senior Democrat called for order when Ergen tried to talk over him.

Although there was widespread agreement that Congress should consider updating video regulations, it seems unlikely that lawmakers will take up the issue any time soon.

"It's too late to do a major bill in this Congress," said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas).

Democrats on the panel renewed their call for a hearing to examine Verizon's $3.6 billion deal with a group of cable companies. 

Speaking with reporters after the hearing, Walden said it is unlikely that the panel will hold a hearing focused on the Verizon-cable deal, which is currently under review by the FCC and the Justice Department.

"We've got a lot of really important policy work we need to focus on," Walden said. "Let's let the agencies that are the experts do their job and then we can look at it from there."