The loss of Fox channels for roughly 3 million Cablevision subscribers in the New York area this weekend isn’t just raising alarms among sports fans, who missed baseball playoff and football games. It’s piquing interest on Capitol Hill too.
A slew of lawmakers have castigated both sides for failing to settle amicably how much Fox can charge Cablevision to carry its signal. Even as the two companies continue work on a new agreement, which could still arrive this weekend, some members of Congress are frustrated their voters are caught in the stalemate and now without access to Fox programming.
In the immediate aftermath, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) has already promised a “systemic reform” of the entire retransmission rules system, which he said on Saturday would ensure consumers don’t lose access to their favorite stations when broadcasters and cable companies fail to see eye to eye.
“Otherwise, high stakes games of chicken will just continue, and those in government will be left in the position of decrying what's happening to consumers while trying not to favor one side in a dispute. That's a tricky and unproductive proposition and it's not sustainable,” said the senator, who leads his chamber’s communications subcommittee.
A spokeswoman for the senator later told POLITICO that Kerry intends to introduce his bill during the lame-duck session.
Kerry’s warning shot is the latest development in the ongoing feud between content providers and pay-TV carriers over retransmission fees. Companies like Fox have recently sought more compensation from cable providers like Cablevision, citing higher operating costs, and they resist any change to a regime they see as fair and free-market oriented. But pay-TV operators have fought aggressively against any new fees, which they sometimes pass off to consumers through higher cable bills – and they’re often the same proponents of retransmission consent reform.
This week’s standoff marks the fifth time this year – the most since 2000 – that channels have gone dark because of retransmission squabbles. Another looming showdown between Fox parent News. Corp and Dish Network could see the channel blacked out for those subscribers too on Nov. 1. Dish subscribers are already without access to Fox sports channels, as well as FX and National Geographic.
It is not clear whether Fox and Cablevision can resolve their dispute in time for this weekend’s major sporting events, including a New York Giants football game and the beginning of baseball’s championship series, some of which will air on Fox.
But the possibility that consumers could miss out on those spectacles has prompted some in the Beltway to encourage both sides to resume negotiating in good faith.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski in particular said Saturday he was “disappointed” by the interruption of Fox service to Cablevision subscribers. “While federal law provides that the terms will be set by agreement between private companies, Fox and Cablevision share responsibility for protecting their audience's interests. I expect both companies to live up to this responsibility,” he said.
Kerry made a similar point in his statement: "While retransmission consent negotiations more often than not result in an agreement, when failure occurs, it disrupts the lives of people who just want the service they pay for to deliver the programming they expect,” he said.
But the senator’s reaction only complements a torrent of criticism from other members of Congress, in both chambers and parties.
Late Saturday, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) called on the FCC in a letter to "bring the parties together" in order to solve the stalemate expediently. He also expressed deep concern that Fox had cut Cablevision subscribers' access to Fox's videos on the Web. "The FCC needs to more than monitor negotiations in such circumstances in my view," wrote Markey, who drafted the 1992 law that lays out the retransmission process. "It needs to actively defend Internet freedom and consumer rights."
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) earlier in the day called on Fox to keep broadcasting its channels during talks, stressing, “New Jersey consumers do not deserve to be treated as pawns in this dispute.”
Before the previous agreement expired, GOP Rep. Pete King (N.Y.) called both Cablevision and Fox personally to implore their chiefs to submit to third-party arbitration, which Cablevision supported but Fox declined.
Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) called both parties too, and later held a news conference in a local sports bar to decry the way the companies had treated consumers, according to an aide. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) on Thursday repeated his call that the FCC investigate the workings of the retransmission consent system.
But Fox does have its supporters. Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) stressed in a letter to the FCC on Friday that the “current retransmission consent regulations have worked well” for stakeholders.
“In order to continue fostering strong competition, private companies should engage in these negotiations without government intervention,” he said.