CBS and Time Warner Cable have been embroiled in a heated contractual battle over the past week that has resulted in viewers in some major markets losing access to CBS programming. When disputes like these go nuclear and signal blackouts occur, it is inevitable that some folks will call for policy interventions since nobody likes it when the content they love goes dark.
While some policy responses are warranted in this matter, policymakers should proceed with caution. Heated contractual negotiations are a normal part of any capitalist marketplace. We shouldn’t expect lawmakers to intervene to speed up negotiations or set content prices because that would disrupt the normal allocation of programming by placing a regulatory thumb too heavily on one side of the scale. This is why I am somewhat sympathetic to CBS in this fight. In an age when content creators struggle to protect their copyrighted content and get compensation for it, the last thing we need is government intervention that undermines the few distribution schemes that actually work well.
On the other hand, Time Warner Cable deserves sympathy here, too, since CBS currently enjoys some preexisting regulatory benefits. As I noted in this 2012 Forbes oped, “Toward a True Free Market in Television Programming,” many layers of red tape still encumber America’s video marketplace and prevent a truly free market in video programming from developing. The battle here revolves around the “retransmission consent” rules that were put in place as part of the Cable Act of 1992 and govern how video distributors carry signals from TV broadcasters, which includes CBS.
But those “retrans” rules are not the only part of the regulatory mess here. There are many related federal rules that tip the scales toward broadcasters and content creators, such as the requirement that video distributors carry broadcast signals even if they don’t want to (“must carry”); rules that prohibit distributors from striking deals with broadcasters outside their local communities (“network non-duplication” and “syndicated exclusivity” rules); regs specifying where broadcast channels appear on the cable channel lineup; and prohibitions against carrying sporting events on cable when the local stadium doesn’t sell all its seats on game day (“sports blackout rule”).
As they say on TV.. “But Wait, There’s More!” Working in the favor of video distributors are the compulsory licensing requirements of the Copyright Act of 1976, which essentially forced a “duty to deal” upon broadcasters. Broadcasters have to let cable operators and other video distributors retransmit local stations, though the system at least ensures they get compensated for it. As I noted in my old Forbes essay, along with must carry rules, “Compulsory licensing is the original sin of video marketplace regulation. We could have avoided most of the regulatory mess of the past quarter century if Congress had simply left these rights and contractual negotiations alone. Once Congress forced broadcasters to share their programming, however, marketplace manipulation was off and rolling.”
Of course, the more primal and problematic intervention came decades before in the 1920s and ’30s when the government decided to nationalize spectrum management. Once mandates instead of markets where chosen as the primary allocation agent, America was off and running with a grand experiment in spectrum central planning. We’re still living with the results today. The very fact that spectrum is licensed and can only be used and sold for very narrow purposes as detailed in meticulous FCC regulations is a sign of just how far-removed we are from a pure free market here.
The question now is, what are we going to do about this fine mess? And is there any chance we can get it done?
The problem in this debate is that there are multiple layers of interventions that have built up over the years and created constituencies that are wedded to their preservation. Broadcasters, networks, independent content creators, big cable companies, small cable companies, satellite companies, sports leagues, and viewing consumers themselves — they all have conflicting interests and a stake in how this debate turns out. In his 2012 Mercatus Center working paper, “Consumer Welfare and TV Program Regulation,” media economist Bruce M. Owen noted that “What distinguishes TV programs from other mass media content, including both traditional print and new online media, is the extreme eagerness of Washington to engage in efforts to prevent markets from working freely, often in response to interest group pressures and opportunities for political advantage and with almost complete indifference to the welfare of consumers.”
As a result, if you talk to almost anyone involved in this debate, they will all insist that only their very specific reforms are the ones that can or should be implemented. Consequently, comprehensive reform will be challenging precisely because of all the conflicting interests and layers of law and regulation that must be eradicated.
But at least there is a blueprint for how to get the job done right. Many times here before I have written about “The Next Generation Television Marketplace Act,” which was floated last session by Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) and then-Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC). It proposed wiping off the books all the archaic rules outlined above. Alas, the bill never went anywhere in the last Congress and now that Sen. DeMint has left to lead the Heritage Foundation, there is no supporter in the Senate this session. Instead, we have some lawmakers floating bad ideas like S.912, the “Television Consumer Freedom Act of 2013,” which just proposes more regulatory gaming of an already over-gamed system.
We instead need policy reforms like the old DeMint-Scalise bill that clean up the regulatory mess of the past. But there just isn’t much appetite for such a house-cleaning. Most parties affected by these rules want very specific outcomes and deregulation won’t give them any such guarantees. After all, there will still be blackouts after deregulation. And the cost of some content may continue to go up in response to demand. And there will still be fights over sports programming. And there’s no certainty that all local broadcasters or small video distributors will survive. And so on, and so on.
But it is also true that a deregulatory environment is more likely to lead to even more experimentation and innovation with new business models, technologies, and methods of content creation and delivery. We already see much innovation in this marketplace despite all the red tape that exists. Just look at what’s been going on recent years with alternative video delivery platforms, including: Netflix, Hulu, XBox Live, Vudu, Roku, Redbox, Boxee, Amazon, Apple TV, Aereo, Google Chromecast, and so on. And don’t forget the strides that the old broadcast and cable giants have made here, too. CBS is actually a pretty good model for how content can be re-purposed online in creative ways on a firm’s own digital platform. Likewise, cable companies like Time Warner Cable are slowly but surely adapting to consumers’ demand for video to be delivered to multiple devices.
Of course, there there will always be hiccups along the road to video nirvana. Some regulatory activists seemingly expect that all content can be delivered effortless and cheaply to consumers without giving a thought in the world to just how complicated it is to get that content financed and distributed in the first place. Great content and great delivery platforms don’t just happen by magic or the good intentions of activists or policymakers. Those platforms happen because new markets and monetization mechanisms develop to facilitate them. If we cut back the regulatory deadwood in our modern information marketplace, we’d likely get even more experimentation and innovation that would likely produce all new ways of financing, creating, and delivering content to consumers. But we’ll never know unless we are willing to embrace change and kill all those old regulatory weeds that continue to grow in our information garden.
Alas, if Congress can’t muster the courage to do that, then lawmakers ought to at least consider asking the broadcasters to return all that juicy spectrum they are sitting on. After all, the current retrans racket gives the broadcasters an increasingly lucrative revenue stream when they deliver content on cable and satellite systems (in addition to the advertising revenues they already receive). No good reason exists to give them preferential treatment relative to any other cable channel out there today. Don’t forget, there are all sorts of garden-variety cable carriage disputes that happen outside the regulated retrans system today. (Remember last year’s big spats between AMC vs. Dish and Viacom vs. DirecTV?) There are no special rules that either side can rely on in those instances. So why should special rules be applied to other content companies simply because some of their properties are broadcast channels? Answer: they shouldn’t.
But if no other reforms occur and if companies like CBS still want to be more like a cable mega-channel — albeit, a very handsomely compensated cable channel — then by all means go for it. In the meantime, however, they can return all that spectrum for re-auction for some better purpose. In fact, back early 2009, CBS Corp. President and CEO Les Moonves told an investor conference that moving all CBS network programming to cable and satellite platforms would be “a very interesting proposition.” I agree! But, absent other reforms, it might be time to make that “interesting proposition” a mandatory one.