The FCC’s Media Bureau today asked for public comment on the Petition recently filed by a number of multichannel video providers – including seven large cable companies, both DBS companies, and Verizon – along with the American Cable Association and several public interest and trade organizations. The Petition seeks changes in the rules governing the retransmission consent process, including potentially requiring arbitration of disputes and limiting the ability of television stations to withhold their signals while the retransmission consent negotiation process is proceeding. Comments in this proceeding are due on April 19 and replies on May 4.

This Petition was prompted in part by several recent high profile retransmission consent negotiations, where television stations threatened to pull their signals from cable systems if their requests for compensation were not met. While television companies argue that being able to pull their signals is a necessary bargaining chip in the negotiation process, petitioners submit that the changed video marketplace makes this option unreasonable, as it can harm both the video provider and the local viewers who are deprived of the station’s signal while negotiations are ongoing.

This is the first step in the consideration of this Petition. If the FCC decides to pursue the matter, it would start a rulemaking proceeding to more specifically explore options for reform of the retransmission consent process. Even at this early stage, this is bound to be a controversial proceeding, which companies on both sides of the issue will vigorously debate. The FCC has designated it as a permit-but-disclose proceeding, meaning that parties can make oral presentations to the Commissioners and FCC staff, if they file the appropriate ex parte disclosures (see our post on the ex parte rules here). There are sure to be many such notices filed.