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House bill aims to prevent broadcast TV blackouts

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) proposed draft legislation on Monday aimed at ensuring that cable TV customers don't lose access to their local broadcast stations.

The discussion draft is a response to the month-long blackout of CBS stations for millions of Time Warner Cable customers.

The Video CHOICE Act would give the Federal Communications Commission the authority to allow cable providers to carry broadcast stations on an interim basis during retransmission disputes. 

The legislation would also allow consumers to drop broadcast stations from their cable packages and would prohibit media companies from requiring providers to carry their cable channels along with their broadcast stations.

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The bill would instruct the FCC to examine whether blocking online content (as CBS did in its Time Warner dispute) violates the "good faith" negotiation requirement. The FCC would also be required to study the cost of sports programming. 

“A vibrant video marketplace is one in which there is healthy competition, consumer choice and basic protections to ensure consumers aren’t caught in the middle of a dispute they have no control over,” Eshoo, the ranking member of the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee, said in a statement. “Recurring TV blackouts, including the 91 U.S. markets impacted in 2012, have made it abundantly clear that the FCC needs explicit statutory authority to intervene when retransmission disputes break down."

She said her discussion draft is "intended to spur constructive, actionable debate on ways to improve the video marketplace for video content creators, pay-TV providers and, most importantly, consumers.”   

The bill would not affect programming disputes that involve only cable channels. Because broadcast stations use public airwaves, they are required to operate in the public interest and are subject to more stringent regulations. 

Eshoo's bill comes ahead of two House hearings this week on the video marketplace. A satellite television law is set to expire at the end of next year, and it's possible that re-authorization legislation could include other changes to video regulations. 

Eshoo's proposal won praise from cable providers but drew the ire of the broadcasting industry.

Gordon Smith, the head of the National Association of Broadcasters, said the bill has a "pro-pay TV slant" and could "embolden pay-TV giants to continue to game the system rather than negotiate in the free market for programming most valuable to viewers."

Smith suggested that Congress should instead require cable companies to reimburse their customers for programming blackouts and should require providers to waive early termination fees for their customers during disputes.

"Time Warner Cable, DirecTV and DISH are spending millions in Washington manufacturing a crisis over retransmission consent, when in fact it is these three companies responsible for nine out of 10 disruptions of service," he said.