Continuing Confusion in the Debate over Retrans & Video Marketplace Deregulation

by on March 29, 2012 · 3 comments

Imagine the following scenario. The government passes a law that includes regulations governing “transactional consent” for retail commerce. These regulations stipulate how buyers and sellers of various goods shall do business. Some of the rules give the sellers special rights to demand that the stores carry some of their goods as well as rules stipulating that stores not carry the goods of competing sellers from other markets. On the flip side, other preexisting rules give buyers the right to demand that certain sellers deal their goods to them at regulated rates.

Now, it’s true that a contractual negotiation takes place in this “marketplace” governed by “transactional consent” regulations, but does this sound like a truly free market to you? Most of us would say No.

Regrettably, that’s the essential error that the American Conservative Union (ACU) makes in a letter they sent to members of Congress this week in which they made the case against H.R. 3675 and S. 2008, “The Next Generation Television Marketplace Act.” That bill, which is sponsored by Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) and Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), represents a comprehensive attempt to deregulate America’s heavily regulated video marketplace. In a recent Forbes oped, I argued that the DeMint-Scalise effort would take us “Toward a True Free Market in Television Programming” by eliminating a litany of archaic media regulations that should have never been on the books to begin with. The measure would:

  • eliminate: “retransmission consent” regulations (rules governing contractual negotiations for content);
  • end “must carry” mandates (the requirement that video distributors carry broadcast signals even if they don’t want to);
  • repeal “network non-duplication” and “syndicated exclusivity” regulations (rules that prohibit distributors from striking deals with broadcasters outside their local communities);
  • end various media ownership regulations; and
  • end the compulsory licensing requirements of the Copyright Act of 1976, which essentially forced a “duty to deal” upon content owners to the benefit of video distributors.

Despite these clearly deregulatory provisions, in its letter to Capitol Hill, the ACU argues that the DeMint-Scalise bill would somehow interfere with what they regard as a free market in video programming. The ACU writes:

one of the major outcomes of the bill would be to strip away the negotiation process known as “retransmission consent.”  This process created a marketplace to ensure that broadcasters were compensated by pay-tv providers for the use of their signal and content. In 1992 Congress set up “retransmission consent” — a process by which broadcasters and the pay-tv industry would have to negotiate with each other for the use of the broadcast signal.  This prevented the pay-tv industry’s previous practice of using the signal for free and then profiting from its retransmission by selling the broadcasters’ content as part of their basic service. The programming that is most viewed today is still produced by broadcasting companies.  Broadcasters take risks by investing significant amounts of money into content production and marketing, and should have the right of determining its distribution.

It continues on:

The reality is that today we have a functioning market in which opposing parties are able to bring value to the negotiating table.  By stripping away the right to compensation for the use of the signal the government would be tipping the scales heavily to the side of the pay-tv companies.  It would distort the marketplace and allow an uncompensated use of broadcast signals and content and is certainly not “deregulation.”  So we urge you to oppose the retransmission consent provisions contained in HR 3675 and S 2008.

ACU has mistakenly equated the retransmission consent regulatory process with an actual free market contracting process. The two are not synonymous. Again, there are many layers of red tape that continue to encumber this marketplace and it would be incorrect to claim that the contracting process for video signals today represents a truly free and unfettered marketplace. The government has its thumb on one side of the scales with the retrans, must carry, and out-of-market signal regulations, but government simultaneously has its other thumb on the other side of the scale with the compulsory licensing requirements. And plenty of other regs litter the video landscape.  Thus, contrary to what the ACU claims, (1) a truly free video marketplace does not exist today because, by definition, a truly free marketplace would not be cluttered with so many federal regulations; and (2) the DeMint-Scalise bill absolutely does represent genuine deregulation of this marketplace since it would remove those unnecessary regulations. These are indisputable facts. No contortion of the English language can render them otherwise.

Unsurprisingly, because the ACU has made the mistake of assuming we currently live in a free market nirvana, it makes another error commonly heard in this debate. The ACU claims that an elimination of retransmission consent rules represents the end of free market contracting for video services. Indeed, the ACU’s claim that the DeMint-Scalise bill “would distort the marketplace and allow an uncompensated use of broadcast signals and content” gets it exactly backward. In reality, the DeMint-Scalise bill would end the regulatory policies that actually do currently “distort the marketplace” and then allow a truly free marketplace in video contracting to develop without any regulatory thumb on the scale in either direction.

Most importantly, nothing in this bill forces content creators or broadcasters to deal their content to other distributors. And nothing in the bill gives those other video distributors the right to freely distribute content without the permission of its owners. In sum, the bill does not repeal copyright law — it only repeals the compulsory licensing rules that force content owners to deal their programming against their consent on government regulated terms.  That means copyright is actually strengthened under this bill and that content owners have more bargaining power than they do today. Thus, the ACU is horribly mistaken in asserting that the DeMint-Scalise bill would “allow an uncompensated use of broadcast signals and content.” The exact opposite is the case.

If the ACU wants to make a case against this measure, I would respectfully suggest that they first get their terminology and facts right. And then we can have an honest debate about true video marketplace deregulation–which is exactly what the DeMint-Scalise bill represents.

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