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Congress Considers Updating 20-year-old Rules, Witnesses Squabble

July 25, 2012 ,

Congressional Committee hearings have the tendency
to come across as a bit dry at times [read, a lot of the time].  Members of Congress attempt humor that falls
flat, drop references to their local sports team, and respectfully disagree
with their colleagues about legislation or Constitutional interpretation.   The witnesses provide testimony from the
perspective of their organizations/industries, take subtle jabs at the opposing
position, and answer Members’ questions, or listen to Members use the majority
of their question time to make drawn out positions statements.

However, yesterday’s Senate Commerce hearing on
“The Cable Act at 20” was different.  It became
so feisty at one point that I expected popcorn and soft drinks to go along with
the entertainment. 

First of all, the topic is one that is relatable
for the average consumer.  The Committee
discussed the impact of the Cable Television and Consumer Protection Act of
1992 on the video market and how it affects consumers 20 years later.  We should congratulate the Senate Commerce
Committee for their timing of this hearing. 
As cable prices continue to rise, and growth in online video outlets
like Netlifx, Hulu, Vimeo continues, the issue of video content and the rules
that regulate how consumers access content become more relevant.  Suddenly Congress does not seem so esoteric.

Senator Rockefeller kicked off the hearing with several
core questions about the ’92 Cable Act:

 

  1. Why hasn’t competition succeeded in
    bringing cable rates down? 

    1. And providing more choices? 
    2. And providing more selections within
      those choices?
  2. Should the protections in the Cable
    Act for various entities be maintained?
  3. How do we make sure that consumers are
    protected and see real benefits as video moves to the Internet, where
    people are increasingly watching?

 

What followed was an enlightening and (and
somewhat revealing) information session about the witnesses’ industries, their
thoughts on who’s to blame for why video prices are so high, and what can be
done to protect consumers.  Here’s my
take on the witness testimony:  

National Association of Broadcasters rep:
“Retransmission consent is great. We shouldn’t change a thing.  The cable guys are the reason your
constituents pay too much for content. 
Think of your local broadcasters in West Virginia, South Dakota,
Arkansas (and any other State represented by Senators on the Committee).  Hey look, I’ve got graphs!”

Time Warner Cable rep: “The ’92 Cable Act is
outdated.  Do you know many special perks
these broadcasters receive and how much protection they get from you guys (the
government)?  They don’t need all of this
protection anymore.  I’m right, he’s
wrong.  Listen to these stats and figures
I have!”

CBS rep: Retransmission consent is fine.  There’s no dysfunctional marketplace.  Don’t change anything at all.  Not for us, but think of the little guys.  You wouldn’t want to hurt the little guys,
would you?  If that happens South
Carolinians might have to rely on broadcaster services from Atlanta, or even
(gasp) New York City!

American Cable Association rep: Everything CBS
just said is wrong.  I will spend the
next few minutes explaining how wrong CBS is.

Consumer Federation of America rep: Cable and
broadcast are both guilty.  Spectrum
sharing is the way of the future.  Let’s
look at unlicensed spectrum more. 
Exclusive broadcast licenses are the original sin here.

Academic: Principled deregulation is the way to
go.  Repeal compulsory licenses.

Here
is the link to the complete hearing, so you can see the entire ping ponged
debate unfold for yourself. 

All of the witnesses recognize that the cost of
cable service for the consumer has increased significantly in the time since
the 1992 Cable Act was passed, they just cast blame on the other guys for
passing those costs along to the consumers (cable blames broadcast, broadcast
blames cable).  Whether the two factions
will ever be on the same page is anyone guess, but as John Bergmayer points out
in his white paper Tomorrowvision,
there are real policy changes that Congress needs to make to improve the future
of video. 

The Future of Video subject is one that we at Public
Knowledge intend to follow closely over the next several months.  In fact, PK President Gigi Sohn testified at last month’s Future
of Video hearing
.  We’re happy that
Congress is considering updating a seriously outdated regulatory structure that
is keeping TV stuck in the past.  Perhaps,
Congress, the cable companies and broadcasters will find a way to hold hands
(or hold their noses) and work together for the best interests of the consumers.