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Policy

Retrans Coalition Makes Strange Bedfellows

7/19/2010 12:01 AM Eastern

Washington — The American
Television Alliance, a coalition
of retransmission-consent critics
seeking Federal Communications
Commission reforms, officially coalesced last week around
a website and an avowed mission
to give voice to consumers
in danger of losing their favorite
shows in the heat of battle.

That heat has forged an alliance
among some groups and companies
that are often, and are even
now, battling like cats in a sack on
other fronts.

“The mission of the new coalition
… is to ensure consumers
are not harmed — or their favorite
shows held hostage — in negotiations
for carriage of broadcast
programming,” said the group in
a statement.

The coalition features virtually
all of the backers of a petition to
get the FCC to step in to require
arbitration and standstill agreements
during retrans impasses,
and comes as Time Warner Cable
is trying to negotiate a new carriage
deal for ABC owned-andoperated
TV stations, ESPN and
ABC Family with The Walt Disney
Co.

“We’ve come together because
we all recognize that consumers
aren’t getting a fair shake from
broadcasters, and face an unfair
choice: Pay more for their favorite
programs, or have them taken
away,” American Cable Association
president Matt Polka said in
a statement Wednesday.

The National Association of
Broadcasters minced no words in
response to ATVA’s big announcement
last week.

“The notion that Time Warner
and its Big Pay TV allies are part
of a group designed ‘to protect
consumers’ is about as credible
as BP executives joining Greenpeace,”
said National Association
of Broadcasters spokesman
Dennis Wharton. “Pay TV built its
business on the backs of broadcast
programming, and it is not
unreasonable for local TV stations
to expect fair compensation
for the most-watched shows
on television.”

The coalition is an eclectic
one that includes ACA, Cablevision
Systems, Verizon Communications,
Dish Network, AT&T,
the American Cable Association,
Public Knowledge, the Parents
Television Council and Starz Entertainmnent,
among more than
two dozen others.

“I think that tells you something,”
says Gigi Sohn, president
of Public Knowledge, which is a
coalition member. “We have a variety
of organizations and companies
who have widly differing
policy goals. We are fighting half
those companies with regard to
net neutrality.”

According to ATVA’s mission
statement, its goal: “[T]o give
consumers a voice and ask lawmakers
to protect consumers by
reforming outdated rules that do
not reflect today’s marketplace.”

The coalition effort includes a
website (http://www.americantelevisionalliance.org/) topped
with pictures of happy families
apparently gathered around sets
that haven’t been blacked out.
Look for the group to launch an
ad campaign, as media outlets
continue to benefit from ad buys
related to retransmission-consent
spats, the Comcast-NBC Universal
deal and the ongoing debate
over broadband regulation.

Perhaps AT&T and Cablevision,
then, are the strangest bedfellows,
given that the two are in the midst of their own carriage battle
over AMC and other of Cablevision’s
Rainbow Media subsidiary
channels. “Rainbow Media and
its parent company, Cablevision,
are threatening to take AMC, IFC
and WE TV channels away from
AT&T U-verse TV customers,”
AT&T said in a statement only an
hour or so before the coalition
released its statement about the
threats of broadcast programmers
pulling channels.

“This is an apples-to-oranges
comparison,” said Cablevision in
a statement. “Retransmission fees
are a scheme by the big broadcasters
to extract billions from
American consumers. Rainbow’s
matter relates to a private dispute
over cable carriage fees which, as
everyone knows, cable networks
have always received from distributors.
One has nothing to do
with the other.”

The coalition was officially announced
July 14, the same day
that AT&T refiled its complaint
against Cablevision and Madison
Square Garden over access
to HD feeds of MSG Media regional
sports networks, programming
AT&T says is important to
its viewers.

Then there is Public Knowledge,
the group advocating for
network neutrality in direct opposition
to telcos and cable companies.
Why has PK cast its lot
with MSOs and telcos, whose carriage
disputes among themselves
would appear also to threaten to
put frowns on those viewers faces,
the virtue of their relative
positions on carriage issues notwithstanding?

“I’m not shocked that Cablevision
is pushing one issue that
they favor and another issue they
don’t favor,” said Sohn, “but we
are pushing for both to be resolved.”
She also said this is not
about her group favoring cable
over broadcast. “I’m favoring the
consumer getting access to programming,”
she said, noting that
in its own, separate comments
on retransmission consent, Public
Knowledge advocates applying
any changes applied to the
retrans process, like standstill
agreements, to program carriage
negotiations.

 

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