Dem lawmaker warns CBS-Time Warner blackout likely to happen again

Americans might need to get used to missing channels.

The top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee charged with overseeing the cable television marketplace is worried that backouts such as that from a recent dispute between CBS and Time Warner Cable could easily happen again.

“Unfortunately, this is not the first time such a dispute has occurred and it certainly, I don’t think, will be the last,” Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), said on Wednesday.

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Since 2005, she said, there have been more than 3,800 days in which channels were blacked out as result of the disputes between broadcasters and cable providers.

Eshoo and fellow legislators pressed for a rewrite of the laws guiding the way that cable companies pay broadcasters for the right to show their channels, a process known as retransmission consent.

A recent dispute between Time Warner Cable and CBS left more than 3 million subscribers in cities like New York, Los Angeles and Dallas without access to CBS and the channels it owns. The companies resolved the conflict last week, days before the onset of professional football season, when games routinely draw top ratings.

This week, Eshoo released draft discussion legislation aimed at preventing those kinds of blackouts.

She also noted that consumers who purchased Internet access — but not cable television — from Time Warner Cable were prevented from accessing CBS’s online content.

“It’s metastasizing,” Eshoo said. “This isn’t just one area where people are affected. There’s a multiplicity of impacts.”

Rep. Michael Doyle (D-Pa.) said he shared Eshoo's concern about that aspect of the recent blackout.

“This is new ground that we’ve broken here that we’ve not seen before,” he said. “The online subscribers to CBS.com, we’re talking about 11 million people that were affected by that outside the area that would be negotiated. I hope this doesn’t become the new normal for the retransmission disputes.”

The lawmakers’ comments on Wednesday came during a hearing investigating ways to rewrite rules governing the video television market.

The chairman of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), said that he planned to circulate his own version of a broader law governing satellite and cable TV by early next year.

He said that many of the laws affecting the way that Americans get their TV have not kept up with the pace of technological innovation.

“While age is an asset to a fine Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, in a technology statute age can portend irrelevancy,” Walden said, referring to a wine-growing region in his state. “In the on-demand world of the Internet and mobility, the statutes that govern the video marketplace are blissfully ignorant of the changes that have taken place around them.”