Retransmission Consent and Net Neutrality: Will Either One Ever Go Away?

By Paul Maxwell Report Archives
Cover image for  article: Retransmission Consent and Net Neutrality: Will Either One Ever Go Away?

Last month, I wrote about so-called "retransmission consent" … or, why your cable bill (if you still get one) keeps growing faster than utility bills under the polar vortex.  Over-the-air, so-called "free" television that distributes over the spectrum we all "own" allows stations to charge you for receiving it via coaxial cable.  (Satellite can charge you, too, but under a different, equally confusing set of laws and regulations.)  And, since most (but not all) cable subscribers depend upon the cable to retransmit those over-the-air signals to your set-top box, the cable companies have to pay the stations for that right.  Not being anything but pretty well-run American businesses, they pass along those charges to you … usually now as a specific line item.  (By the way, broadcasters hate that bit of transparency.)

This is why television station managers love the Super Bowl.  It is called ransom as they threaten to black-out major media events in order to raise the retransmission rates.  You want the Super Bowl?  Oops, the cable system has to pay for that signal … which really means that you do.

That charge isn't going away … and now broadcasters seem to be emulating one of cable's biggest mistakes: taking you for granted and believing that subscriber fees have no ceiling.  But there's a way you can (sort of) fight back.  It's called cord cutting.

Of course, the cord doesn't really get cut, only the robust video mix of so-called "cable" channels bites the dust.

With cord cutting, many households subscribe to a streaming service or six.  Some of them even offer retransmitted local stations in the mix a la Hulu.  Of course, the resulting bill soon grows to match the old video mix of cable … and usually without retransmitted local stations … unless, of course, the household gets an antenna or three.  Now that only works if the household can receive local signals.  Those without (like me) pay via cable.  (I live in a small mountain resort town without over-the-air access.)

Here's a tweet from our long-time friend Lou Borrelli (@LouBorrelli) that makes a line-of-site point.

"Digital antenna integration with set top boxes is a cost-effective option ... successfully introduced in a new build as the third operator on a certain Caribbean island with 94% acceptance."

Will this endless ransom last forever?  Well, as you've probably noticed, Congress has reconvened with a startlingly different lineup of Congress folk.  The House has turned very blue while the Senate is an ever-brighter shade of red.  That Democratic House has already seen a moveby the new Chairman of the House Communications Committee Mike Doyle to open his first subcommittee hearings on the Federal Confusion Commission's rolling back of so-called net neutrality rules.  He's tried before -- only then he was in the minority.  Nothing, though, is likely to result in any serious changes this session or the next unless (or until) consumers get really mad and vote out the folks who approve of ransom rights for broadcasters.

And just to make it all more fun, there are hearings this week involving the suit brought to roll back the FCC's move to reverse the previous FCC's Net neutrality rules.

Random Notes

In what might just be an indication of system-wide plans by Comcast (but probably not), the largest cable company just got a new franchise for Laconia, New Hampshire, to overbuild the former MetroCast system that Atlantic Broadband is in the process of upgrading.  About the "probably not" … Comcast won't go national with the kinds of costs that would take.  A streaming national service is already on the way and that might be the right precursor to more moves.

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