Television Blackouts Highlight Need for TV Law Reforms

If you suddenly can’t watch CBS programs on your television, or if you’ve been without some of your major networks since early July, you’re not alone. On July 3, AT&T customers “lost access to Nexstar stations [including ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC affiliates] in 97 markets.” And on July 20, AT&T customers may lose access to some CBS-owned stations because of an expiring contract between AT&T and CBS.

These frustrating blackouts highlight the need to reform the antiquated laws that govern the television marketplace. As NTU has long argued, these inefficient regulatory burdens are due for a serious overhaul. We wrote in 2013:

“Because the federal government has created a complex system of laws and regulations dictating the rules of the game, the playing field is strewn with obstacles that increase the likelihood that providers of content and service will end up in a stalemate.”

Fortunately, we aren’t the only ones who believe in removing outdated regulations. Recently, House Republican Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) announced they’d be teaming up on a legislative framework “to overhaul the outdated laws governing the television marketplace.” Scalise said the legislation, which has yet to be released, “will allow for greater competition in the marketplace and will empower consumers with more freedom to watch their favorite programming.” Eshoo said “[o]ur bipartisan approach will eliminate blackouts and stem the rising costs [for consumers].”

NTU looks forward to reviewing the details of the legislation, but in the meantime the bipartisan pair has identified blackouts as one of the motivating factors for their bill. Writing on the Nexstar-AT&T blackout just a few days ago, Reps. Scalise and Eshoo said:

“[Broadcast blackouts] are a symptom of outdated and ineffective laws governing the television marketplace. The Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992, which governs much of today’s television marketplace, was enacted when the world was a very different place--cable was becoming popular, satellite TV was nascent, and few had heard of the internet.”

Clearly, a new system is needed. NTU believes any legislation addressing the relationship between cable/satellite providers and broadcast networks should allow the private sector to innovate on behalf of consumers. Previous versions of Rep. Scalise’s Next Generation Television Marketplace Act, which NTU has supported, would be an excellent framework to start with.

We look forward to seeing the proposal from Reps. Scalise and Eshoo. Further, we think millions of American television consumers will appreciate the results that a freer market can provide.