NYT suggests government has retrans role but takes no sides


The New York Times has seen the biggest retransmission battles of 2010 take place on its home field, and is asking the two parties in the latest haggle – Fox and Cablevision – to cut a deal. It also says the government has a legitimate role in settling such disputes, but should not “put a thumb on the scale.”

NYT notes that the video distribution business has changed a great deal over the past 20 years. Cable companies have gone from virtual monopolies to parties in a three-way MVPD battle that also includes satellite and telco (and with the internet possibly on its way to provide a fourth competitor).

Meanwhile, advertising sales on broadcast outlets stagnant even before the economy collapsed in the fall of 2008.

NYT notes that there are few arrows in the government quiver as it stands now, but notes that legislation proposed by John Kerry (D-MA) could add some muscle for regulators. The government would be able to “suggest” arbitration, and could force both parties to disclose their current bargaining stance to allow consumers to make an informed decision about which is being the most unreasonable.

The newspaper concludes, “Washington must not put a thumb on the scale. The fact that broadcasters also use the public airwaves justifies intervention to bring transparency to the process. Meanwhile, Fox and Cablevision should cut a deal.”

RBR-TVBR observation: Broadcasters are less likely than MVPDs to approve of any government intervention at all. But that said, the Gray Lady was very careful not to pick sides in the dispute, which we will take as yet another sign of the tangled politics that blur party lines on communications issues in general and industry vs. industry issues in particular.

Consumers are the ones caught in the middle of such disputes, and since broadcasters are the ones who are forced into the position of taking an action – pulling programming – broadcasters become easy targets for observers looking out for consumer interests.

If both sides are required to be transparent, maybe consumers would find out how much a broadcast TV station is paying in relation to some basic cable channels. Broadcasters should look pretty good if all that info is available.

We applaud the Times for not going all-out down that one-sided route. Perhaps its recent history as a television broadcaster has left it with a deeper insight into the issue than is available to other third party observers.