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. Continue reading →