Media Regulation

With Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in town this week for a political flogging, you might think that this is darkest hour for the social networking giant. Facebook stands at a regulatory crossroads, to be sure. But allow me to offer a cynical take, and one based on history: Facebook is potentially poised to score its greatest victory ever as it begins the transition to regulated monopoly status, solidifying its market power, and limiting threats from new rivals.

By slowly capitulating to critics (both here and abroad) who are thirsty for massive regulation of the data-driven economy, Facebook is setting itself up as a servant of the state. In the name of satisfying some amorphous political “public interest” standard and fulfilling a variety of corporate responsibility objectives, Facebook will gradually allow itself to be converted into a sort of digital public utility or electronic essential facility.

That sounds like trouble for the firm until you realize that Facebook is one of the few companies who will be able to sacrifice a pound of flesh like that and remain alive. As layers of new regulatory obligations are applied, barriers to new innovations will become formidable obstacles to the very competitors that the public so desperately needs right now to offer us better alternatives. Gradually, Facebook will recognize this and go along with the regulatory schemes. And then eventually they will become the biggest defender of all of it.

Welcome to Facebook’s broadcast industry moment. The firm is essentially in the same position the broadcast sector was about a century ago when it started cozying up to federal lawmakers. Over time, broadcasters would warmly embrace an expansive licensing regime that would allow all parties—regulatory advocates, academics, lawmakers, bureaucrats, and even the broadcasters themselves—to play out the fairy tale that broadcasters would be good “public stewards” of the “public airwaves” to serve the “public interest.”

Alas, the actual listening and viewing public got royally shafted in this deal. Continue reading →

Broadcast license renewal challenges have troubled libertarians and free speech advocates for decades. Despite our efforts (and our law journal articles on the abuse of the licensing process), license challenges are legal. In fact, political parties, prior FCCs, and activist groups have encouraged license challenges based on TV content to ensure broadcasters are operating in “the public interest.” Further, courts have compelled and will compel a reluctant FCC to investigate “news distortion” and other violations of FCC broadcast rules. It’s a troubling state of affairs that has been pushed back into relevancy because FCC license challenges are in the news.

In recent years the FCC, whether led by Democrats or Republicans, has preferred to avoid tricky questions surrounding license renewals. Chairman Pai, like most recent FCC chairs, has been an outspoken defender of First Amendment protections and norms. He opposed, for instance, the Obama FCC’s attempt to survey broadcast newsrooms about their coverage. He also penned an op-ed bringing attention to the fact that federal NSF funding was being used by left-leaning researchers to monitor and combat “misinformation and propaganda” on social media.

The silence of the Republican commissioners today about license renewals is likely primarily because they have higher priorities (like broadband deployment and freeing up spectrum) than intervening in the competitive media marketplace. But second, and less understood, is because whether to investigate a news station isn’t really up to them. Courts can overrule them and compel an investigation.

Political actors have used FCC licensing procedures for decades to silence political opponents and unfavorable media. For reasons I won’t explore here, TV and radio broadcasters have diminished First Amendment rights and the public is permitted to challenge their licenses at renewal time.

So, progressive “citizens groups” even in recent years have challenged license renewals for broadcasters for “one-sided programming.” Unfortunately, it works. For instance, in 2004 the promises of multi-year renewal challenges from outside groups and the risk of payback from a Democrat FCC forced broadcast stations to trim a documentary critical of John Kerry from 40 minutes to 4 minutes. And, unlike their cable counterparts, broadcasters censor nude scenes in TV and movies because even a Janet Jackson Superbowl scenario can lead to expensive license challenges.

These troubling licensing procedures and pressure points were largely unknown to most people, but, on October 11, President Trump tweeted:

“With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!”

So why hasn’t the FCC said they won’t investigate NBC and other broadcast station owners? It may be because courts can compel the FCC to investigate “news distortion.”

This is exactly what happened to the Clinton FCC. As Melody Calkins and I wrote in August about the FCC’s news distortion rule:

Though uncodified and not strictly enforced, the rule was reiterated in the FCC’s 2008 broadcast guidelines. The outline of the rule was laid out in the 1998 case Serafyn v. CBS, involving a complaint by a Ukrainian-American who alleged that the “60 Minutes” news program had unfairly edited interviews to portray Ukrainians as backwards and anti-Semitic. The FCC dismissed the complaint but DC Circuit Court reversed that dismissal and required FCC intervention. (CBS settled and the complaint was dropped before the FCC could intervene.)

The commissioners might personally wish broadcasters had full First Amendment protections and want to dismiss all challenges but current law permits and encourages license challenges. The commission can be compelled to act because of the sins of omission of prior FCCs: deciding to retain the news distortion rule and other antiquated “public interest” regulations for broadcasters. The existence of these old media rules mean the FCC’s hands are tied.

By Brent Skorup and Melody Calkins

Recently, the FCC sought comments for its Media Modernization Initiative in its effort to “eliminate or modify [media] regulations that are outdated, unnecessary, or unduly burdensome.” The regulatory thicket for TV distribution has long encumbered broadcast and cable providers. These rules encourage large, homogeneous cable TV bundles and burden cable and satellite operators with high compliance costs. (See the complex web of TV regulations at the Media Metrics website.)

One reason “skinny bundles” from online video providers and cable operators are attracting consumers is that online video circumvents the FCC’s Rube Goldberg-like system altogether. The FCC should end its 50-year experiment with TV regulation, which, among other things, has raised the cost of TV and degraded the First Amendment rights of media outlets.

The proposal to eliminate legacy media rules garnered a considerable amount of support from a wide range of commenters. In our filed reply comments, we identify four regulatory rules ripe for removal:

  • News distortion. This uncodified, under-the-radar rule allows the commission to revoke a broadcasters’ license if the FCC finds that a broadcaster deliberately engages in “news distortion, staging, or slanting.” The rule traces back to the FCC’s longstanding position that it can revoke licenses from broadcast stations if programming is not “in the public interest.”

    Though uncodified and not strictly enforced, the rule was reiterated in the FCC’s 2008 broadcast guidelines. The outline of the rule was laid out in the 1998 case Serafyn v. CBS, involving a complaint by a Ukrainian-American who alleged that the “60 Minutes” news program had unfairly edited interviews to portray Ukrainians as backwards and anti-Semitic. The FCC dismissed the complaint but DC Circuit Court reversed that dismissal and required FCC intervention. (CBS settled and the complaint was dropped before the FCC could intervene.)

    “Slanted” and distorted news can be found in (unregulated) cable news, newspapers, Twitter, and YouTube. The news distortion rule should be repealed and broadcasters should have regulatory parity (and their full First Amendment rights) restored.
  • Must-carry. The rule requires cable operators to distribute the programming of local broadcast stations at broadcasters’ request. (Stations carrying relatively low-value broadcast networks seek carriage via must-carry. Stations carrying popular networks like CBS and NBC can negotiate payment from cable operators via “retransmission consent” agreements.) Must-carry was narrowly sustained by the Supreme Court in 1994 against a First Amendment challenge, on the grounds that cable operators had monopoly power in the pay-TV market. Since then, however, cable’s market share shrank from 95% to 53%. Broadcast stations have far more options for distribution, including satellite TV, telco TV, and online distribution and it’s unlikely the rules would survive a First Amendment challenge today.
  • Network nonduplication and syndicated exclusivity. These rules limit how and when broadcast programming can be distributed and allow the FCC to intervene if a cable operator breaches a contract with a broadcast station. But the (exempted) distribution of hundreds of non-broadcast channels (e.g., CNN, MTV, ESPN) show that programmers and distributors are fully capable of forming private negotiations without FCC oversight. These rules simply make licensing negotiations more difficult and invite FCC intervention.

Finally, we identify retransmission consent regulations and compulsory licenses for repeal. Because “retrans” interacts with copyright matters outside of the FCC’s jurisdiction, we encourage the FCC work with the Copyright Office in advising Congress to repeal these statutes. Cable operators dislike the retrans framework and broadcasters dislike being compelled to license programming at regulated rates. These interventions simply aren’t needed (hundreds of cable and online-only TV channels operate outside of this framework) and neither the FCC nor the Copyright Office particularly likes being the referees in these fights. The FCC should break the stalemate and approach the Copyright Office about advocating for direct licensing of broadcast TV content.

Title II allows the FCC to determine what content and media Internet access providers must transmit on their own private networks, so the First Amendment has constantly dogged the FCC’s “net neutrality” proceedings. If the Supreme Court agrees to take up an appeal from the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, which rejected a First Amendment challenge this summer, it will likely be because of Title II’s First Amendment deficiencies.

Title II has always been about handicapping ISPs qua speakers and preventing ISPs from offering curated Internet content. As former FCC commissioner Copps said, absent the Title II rules, “a big cable company could block access to an investigative report about its less-than-stellar customer service.” Tim Wu told members of Congress that net neutrality was intended to prevent ISPs from favoring, say, particular news sources or sports teams.

But just as a cable company chooses to offer some channels and not others, and a search engine chooses to promote some pages and not others, choosing to offer a curated Internet to, say, children, religious families, or sports fans involves editorial decisions. As communications scholar Stuart Benjamin said about Title II’s problem, under current precedent, ISPs “can say they want to engage in substantive editing, and that’s enough for First Amendment purposes.”

Title II – Bringing Broadcast Regulation to the Internet

Title II regulation of the Internet is frequently compared to the Fairness Doctrine, which activists used for decades to drive conservatives out of broadcast radio and TV. As a pro-net neutrality media professor explained in The Atlantic last year, the motivation for the Fairness Doctrine and Title II Internet regulation is the same: to “rescue a potentially democratic medium from commercial capture.” This is why there is almost perfect overlap between the organizations and advocates who support the Fairness Doctrine and those who lobbied for Title II regulation of the Internet. Continue reading →

The FCC appears to be dragging the TV industry, which is increasingly app- and Internet-based, into years of rulemakings, unnecessary standards development and oversight, and drawn-out lawsuits. The FCC hasn’t made a final decision but the general outline is pretty clear. The FCC wants to use a 20 year-old piece of corporate welfare, calculated to help a now-dead electronics retailer, as authority to regulate today’s TV apps and their licensing terms. Perhaps they’ll succeed in expanding their authority over set top boxes and TV apps. But as TV is being revolutionized by the Internet the legacy providers are trying to stay ahead of the new players (Netflix, Amazon, Layer 3), regulating TV apps and boxes will likely impede the competitive process and distract the FCC from more pressing matters, like spectrum and infrastructure. Continue reading →

I came across an article last week in the AV Club that caught my eye. The title is: “The Telecommunications Act of 1996 gave us shitty cell service, expensive cable.” The Telecom Act is the largest update to the regulatory framework set up in the 1934 Communications Act. The basic thrust of the Act was to update the telephone laws because the AT&T long-distance monopoly had been broken up for a decade. The AV Club is not a policy publication but it does feature serious reporting on media. This analysis of the Telecom Act and its effects, however, omits or obfuscates important information about dynamics in media since the 1990s.

The AV Club article offers an illustrative collection of left-of-center critiques of the Telecom Act. Similar to Glass-Steagall  repeal or Citizens United, many on the left are apparently citing the Telecom Act as a kind of shorthand for deregulatory ideology run amuck. And like Glass-Steagall repeal and Citizens United, most of the critics fundamentally misstate the effects and purposes of the law. Inexplicably, the AV Club article relies heavily on a Common Cause white paper from 2005. Now, Common Cause typically does careful work but the paper is hopelessly outdated today. Eleven years ago Netflix was a small DVD-by-mail service. There was no 4G LTE (2010). No iPhone or Google Android (2007). And no Pandora, IPTV, and a dozen other technologies and services that have revolutionized communications and media. None of the competitive churn since 2005, outlined below, is even hinted at in the AV Club piece. The actual data undermine the dire diagnoses about the state of communications and media from the various critics cited in the piece.  Continue reading →

The FCC’s transaction reviews have received substantial scholarly criticism lately. The FCC has increasingly used its license transaction reviews as an opportunity to engage in ad hoc merger reviews that substitute for formal rulemaking. FCC transaction conditions since 2000 have ranged from requiring AOL-Time Warner to make future instant messaging services interoperable, to price controls for broadband for low-income families, to mandating merging parties to donate $1 million to public safety initiatives.

In the last few months alone,

  • Randy May and Seth Cooper of the Free State Foundation wrote a piece that the transaction reviews contravene rule of law norms.
  • T. Randolph Beard et al. at the Phoenix Center published a research paper about how the FCC’s informal bargaining during mergers has become much more active and politically motivated in recent years.
  • Derek Bambauer, law professor at the University of Arizona, published a law review article that criticized the use of informal agency actions to pressure companies to act in certain ways. These secretive pressures “cloak what is in reality state action in the guise of private choice.”

This week, in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, my colleague Christopher Koopman and I added to this recent scholarship on the FCC’s controversial transaction reviews. Continue reading →

For decades Congress has gradually deregulated communications and media. This poses a significant threat to the FCC’s jurisdiction because it is the primary regulator of communications and media. The current FCC, exhibiting alarming mission creep, has started importing its legacy regulations to the online world, like Title II common carrier regulations for Internet providers. The FCC’s recent proposal to “open up” TV set top boxes is consistent with the FCC’s reinvention as the US Internet regulator, and now the White House has supported that push.

There are a lot of issues with the set top box proposal but I’ll highlight a few. I really don’t even like referring to it as “the set top box proposal” because the proposal is really aimed at the future of TV–video viewing via apps and connected devices. STBs are a sideshow and mostly just provide the FCC a statutory hook to regulate TV apps. Even that “hook” is dubious–the FCC arbitrarily classifies apps and software as “navigation devices” but concludes that actual TV devices like Chromecast, Roku, smartphones, and tablets aren’t navigation devices. And, despite what activists say, this isn’t about “cable” either but all TV distributors (“MVPDs”) like satellite and telephone companies and Google Fiber, most of whom are small TV players. Continue reading →

With great fanfare, FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler is calling for sweeping changes to the way cable TV set-top boxes work.

In an essay published Jan. 27 by Re/Code, Wheeler began by citing the high prices consumers pay for set-top box rentals, and bemoans the fact that alternatives are not easily available. Yet for all the talk and tweets about pricing and consumer lock-in, Wheeler did not propose an inquiry into set-top box profit margins, nor whether the supply chain is unduly controlled by the cable companies. Neither did Wheeler propose an investigation into the complaints consumers have made about cable companies’ hassles around CableCards, which under FCC mandate cable companies must provide to customers who buy their own set-top boxes.

In fact, he dropped the pricing issue halfway through and began discussing access to streaming content:

To receive streaming Internet video, it is necessary to have a smart TV, or to watch it on a tablet or laptop computer that, similarly, do not have access to the channels and content that pay-TV subscribers pay for. The result is multiple devices and controllers, constrained program choice and higher costs.

This statement seems intentionally misleading. Roku, Apple TV and Amazon Fire sell boxes that connect to TVs and allow a huge amount of streaming content to play. True, the devices are still independent of the set-top cable box but there is no evidence that this lack of integration is a competitive barrier.

Continue reading →

Last Friday I attended a fascinating conference hosted by the Duke Law School’s Center for Innovation Policy about television regulation and competition. It’s remarkable how quickly television competition has changed and how online video providers are putting pressure on old business models.

I’ve been working on a project about competition in technology, communications, and media and one chart that stands out is one that shows increasing competition in pay television, below. Namely, that cable providers have lost nearly 15 million subscribers since 2002. Cable was essentially the only game in town in 1990 for pay television (about 100% market share). Yet today, cable’s market share approaches 50%. This competitive pressure accounts for some cable companies trying to merge in recent years.

Much of this churn by subscribers was to satellite providers but it’s the “telephone” companies providing TV that’s really had a competitive impact in recent years. Telcos went from about 0% market share in 2005 to 13% in 2014. This new competition can be tied to Congress finally allowing telephone companies to provide TV in 1996. However, these new services didn’t really get started until a decade ago when 1) digital and IP technology improved, and 2) the FCC made it clear by deregulating DSL ISPs that telephone companies could expect a market return for investing in fiber broadband nationwide.

Pay TV Market Share TLF

UPDATE:

And below is market share data going back ten more years to 1994 using FCC data, which uses a slightly different measurement methodology (hence the kink around 2003-2004). I’ve also omitted market share of Home Satellite Dish (those large dishes you sometimes see in rural areas). Though HSD has negligible market share today, it had a few million subscribers in the mid-1990s. I may add HSD later.

Pay TV Market Share TLF 1994-2014