Retransmission Consent Complaints Don’t Withstand Market Analysis

by on February 5, 2014 · 2 comments

It appears that Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler is returning to a competition-based approach to communications regulation. Chairman Wheeler’s emphasis on “competition, competition, competition” indicates his intent to intervene in communications markets only when it is necessary to correct a market failure.

I expect most on both sides of the political spectrum would welcome a return to rigorous market analysis at the FCC, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time. The American Television Alliance (ATVA), whose FCC petition wouldn’t withstand even a cursory market power analysis, is sure to be among the displeased.

The ATVA petition asks the FCC to regulate prices for retransmission consent (the prices video service providers (VSPs) pay for the rights to provide broadcast television programming to pay-TV subscribers) because retransmission fees and competition among VSPs are increasing. Though true, this data doesn’t indicate that TV stations or broadcast television networks have market power — it indicates that legislative and policy efforts to increase competition among VSPs are working.

The increase in retransmission consent fees is the natural consequence of the increase in competition among VSPs. When incumbent cable companies were the dominant VSPs, they could use the threat of a blackout to force broadcasters to grant retransmission consent at extremely low prices (or even for free). If a TV station balked, it risked losing substantial advertising revenue because there was no other VSP to retransmit the station’s signal.

As a result of increasing competition among VSPs, broadcasters are finally in a position to negotiate fairer prices for their content. When a VSP threatens a blackout today, a broadcaster has the option of calling the VSP’s bluff, as Wall Street observed when Time Warner yanked CBS off the air during a dispute about wireless distribution rights last fall. Now that there are competitive VSPs in most markets, cable operators have something to lose from a blackout too — their subscribers.

VSPs have responded to increasing market competition by asking the government for special treatment. ATVA has cloaked their rent-seeking request in the language of market power, but haven’t provided any analysis supporting their contention that retransmission consent fees are “too high.” They appear to be hoping that, if they cry wolf loud enough, they can avoid paying a fairer price for television programming.

If retransmission fees were really “too high,” one would expect that they would be significantly higher than the fees VSPs charge for their own content. According to the data, however, VSPs charge significantly more for their affiliated content than broadcasters charge for retransmission consent. In 2012, VSPs paid an average of $1.50 for the top ten channels affiliated with cable networks. In comparison, VSPs paid an average of $0.58 in 2012 for the right to retransmit the channels of the top ten TV station companies (e.g., Sinclair) — sixty one percent (61%) less than VSPs were willing to pay for their affiliated content. (Sources: Kagan and SNL)

Are the significantly higher prices cable networks charged for their programming in 2012 driven by consumer ratings? No. Kagan data indicates that, in 2012, VSPs paid approximately the same amount — $0.57 per subscriber — for CNN (CNN en Español sold for $0.58) as the average for the top ten TV stations. Despite its similar price, however, CNN averaged only about 600,000 daily viewers during primetime whereas each of the national broadcast network news programs averaged over 8 million evening viewers daily. This viewership data, albeit limited, indicates that broadcasters are charging ten times less for their programming than VSPs charge for similar programming.

The premium VSPs pay for their own content reflects the economics of the video programming market. Though competition among VSPs has increased, there is still significantly greater concentration and market power in the video distribution market than in the video programming market. According to the FCC’s most recent video competition report, only about one-third (35%) of homes had access to at least four VSPs in 2011. (See Fifteenth Report at Table 2) The FCC found that, even in areas with four VSPs, the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI), a common measure of horizontal market concentration, was over 2,500 (a highly concentrated marketplace). (See id. at ¶ 37) In comparison, there were more than twenty national video programming networks. (See id. at App. B)

Even a cursory review of the data indicates that recent increases in retransmission consent fees are a sign of market success, not a failure. It should be no surprise that, as competition among VSPs has increased, the price of retransmission consent has increased with it. It is the predictable result of cable’s decreasing monopsony power.

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