retransmission consent

Last week, the FCC announced a consent decree with Sinclair Broadcast Group where Sinclair agreed to pay $9.495 million to the FCC to settle claims that it negotiated retransmission consent agreements involving stations that it did not own with MVPDs (cable and satellite companies).  Sinclair did not admit any liability – but stated that it

November is another of those months with no regular filing obligations – no EEO public file and Mid-Term reports, no noncommercial ownership reports, and no quarterly issues programs lists or children’s television reports. EEO public file reports and noncommercial station ownership reports, being tied to renewal dates, will be back in December. See our Broadcaster’s Calendar, here, for information about the states where stations have such obligations. For all commercial radio and TV stations, November also means that they should be completing their Biennial Ownership Reports, which are due on December 2 (extended from the November 1 due date by FCC action noted, see our article here). Those reports submit a snapshot of broadcast station ownership as of October 1, so they can be filed at any time in November.

The end of November also brings the effective date of the requirement that TV stations convert the text of their emergency alerts run in entertainment programs (like weather alerts) into speech, with that audio to be broadcast on the station’s SAP channel. See our articles here and here on that requirement.
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A month ago, the FCC released its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking looking to reassess the requirement that broadcasters and MVPDs (cable and satellite television) engage in “good faith” negotiations over the retransmission consent necessary for the MVPD to rebroadcast the signal of a broadcast television station, triggering numerous questions throughout the industry (and among financial analysts who follow the television industry) as to what that release meant. On Friday, the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking was published in the Federal Register, setting the dates for the filing of comments on the questions raised by the Commission. Comments are due on December 1, and Reply Comments on December 31. Given that this may well be the same period of time in which TV stations are preparing their initial applications for the incentive auction, and given that the reply falls in the middle of the holidays, don’t be surprised if requests for an extension of these comment dates are filed.

But no matter the dates on which comments are filed, this proceeding obviously raises a number of important issues. While many industry analysts wondered if, by the very fact that the Notice was released, it signaled the FCC’s intent to “go after” broadcasters in their retransmission consent dealings – perhaps as a way to encourage them to participate in the incentive auction by threatening the revenue from the retransmission consent fees that they now receive. But what most of these observers fail to note is that the release of the NPRM by September 1 was actually not the initiated by the FCC Commissioners. Instead, the action was mandated by Congress when it adopted STELAR, the law that extended the right of satellite television companies to retransmit the signals of local television stations. That legislations included many required actions and studies (see our summary here), including the requirement that this NPRM be started by September 1. Thus, the Commission actually waited as long as it could in releasing this rulemaking order.
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In an article posted on the FCC’s blog yesterday, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler listed four actions that would soon be coming out of the FCC to address broadcast issues. For TV, these include looking at what constitutes “good faith negotiations” in the retransmission consent context, and whether to do away with the FCC’s network nonduplication protection rule. For radio, the long-delayed AM revitalization docket will apparently soon be considered by the FCC. And, finally, the FCC may modernize the contest rules for all broadcasters by allowing more online disclosure of contest rules. What are these proceedings all about?

The retransmission consent proceeding grows out of Congress’ adoption of STELAR, which authorized the continued retransmission of broadcast signals by satellite television operators. As part of that legislation, which we summarized here, the FCC was directed to start a proceeding to determine whether it should adopt new rules to define what constitutes “good faith negotiation” of retransmission consent agreements. There has already been significant lobbying on this issue by both sides. Right now, good faith negotiation really has not been an area where the FCC has intervened beyond using its bully pulpit to urge parties to retransmission consent disputes to reach a deal. It is commonly recognized that failing to deal with a MVPD at all would be a violation of the good faith standard, but many MVPDs now want the FCC to become more involved, putting limits on TV channel blackouts, especially just before big televised events (like the Super Bowl or the Oscars), limiting the blackout of web-based programming to subscribers of an MVPD that is involved in a dispute, limiting the bundling of Big 4 network programs with programming from other channels provided by the TV broadcaster, and similar limits. The Chairman’s blog is short on specifics, but does suggest that, while some specific prohibitions may be suggested, the FCC would also be able to look at the totality of the circumstances to determine if a broadcaster and an MVPD were negotiating in good faith (note that these rules apply to broadcast retransmission consent negotiation, not those between MVPDs and cable channels not shown on broadcast TV).
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Over-the-top video systems, using the Internet to transmit over-the-air TV signals to consumers, are back in the news. Last week, a US District Court Judge in the Central District of California, in a case involving FilmOnX, an Aereo-like service that had been involved in many of the court decisions that had preceded the Supreme Court’s Aereo decision, suggested that such platforms can get that public performance right through the statutory license provided by Section 111 of the Copyright Act – the same section of the Act that allows cable systems to retransmit broadcast signals without getting permission from every copyright holder of every program broadcast on those stations. Just last year, we were writing about the Supreme Court decision in the Aereo case, where the Court determined that a company could not use an Internet-based platform to stream the signals of over-the-air television stations within their own markets without first getting public performance rights from the stations themselves. The new decision raises the potential of a new way for these Internet services to try to get the rights to rebroadcast TV signals.

The FilmOn decision was on a motion for summary decision, and is a very tentative decision – the Judge recognizing that he was weighing in on a very sensitive subject, going where both the FCC and the Copyright Office have thus far feared to tread, and disagreeing with the Second Circuit Court of Appeals that had held the opposite several years ago in the Ivi decision. The FilmOn decision is a preliminary one – subject to further argument before the Judge at the end of the month. Even if adopted as written, the judge recognized the potential impact of his decision, and the fact that it contradicted Ivi and other decisions. Thus, the decision stated that its effect would be stayed pending an immediate appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. So, even if finalized, we have not seen the last of this argument yet.
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The FCC issued a public notice seeking comment on a Petition for Rulemaking filed by cable operator Mediacom asking for the FCC to require TV stations, in their license renewal applications, to certify that the licensee will not block any multichannel video programming distributor (i.e. cable or satellite TV) from carrying the signal of the station at the end of a retransmission consent agreement unless the station is accessible over-the-air or by Internet streams to at least 90% of the homes in the market served by the MVPD. Comments on this Petition are due by August 14. This is an initial Petition for Rulemaking (which can be viewed here), so these comments will inform the FCC as to whether to further pursue the proposals made in the Petition through a formal Notice of Proposed Rulemaking which would be needed before a rule change.

Obviously, this petition raises controversial issues. Mediacom asserts that it is looking after the interests of consumers in being able to access television programming – and not losing that access during retransmission consent negotiations. Broadcasters, on the other hand, feel that the ability to remove their signal from an MVPD is their most effective bargaining chip in retransmission consent negotiations. Broadcasters will no doubt argue that they have the rights to their programming and, if the MVPD will not agree to terms for its carriage, the MVPD should no longer have the right to carry the programming.
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Last week, the Senate approved a reauthorization of STELA, the new bill called STELAR (the “STELA Reauthorization Act of 2014”), adopting the version that had been approved by the House of Representatives earlier in the month.  In addition to simply giving satellite television companies (essentially DISH and DirecTV) the a five-year extension of their rights to rebroadcast the signals of over-the-air television stations without authorization from every copyright holder of the programming broadcast on those stations, STELAR made other changes to both the Communications and Copyright Acts that will have an impact on TV station operators once this bill is signed by the President.  The Presidential signing is expected before the end of the year.  [Update, 12/5/2014 the President signed the Bill yesterday evening, so it is now law]

Some of the important provisions for TV stations contained in this bill include provisions that impact not only the relationship between TV stations and satellite TV companies, but also ones that have a broader impact on the relationship of TV stations with all MVPDs, including cable systems. There is also a provision actually providing more latitude for LPTV stations to negotiate carriage agreements.  Some of the specific provisions of this bill include:

JSA Extension:  STELAR will give TV stations currently operating with a Joint Sales Agreement with another station in their market which they cannot own under the current multiple ownership rules 6 more months to terminate such operations – until December 19, 2016 (after the next Presidential election).  See our discussion of the changes in JSA attribution here and here.
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The FCC announced two significant policy initiatives by Blog post in the last week – perhaps recognizing that the Internet provides a better way of packaging a message about policy directions than an unpredictable news conference.  The two decisions announced this week by Blog post were (1) the Chairman announcing that he has directed that a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking be circulated among the other Commissioners to treat Over-the-Top TV providers (“OTT” providers, usually those that provide service over the Internet) of linear programming as MVPDs – meaning that they would be treated, for regulatory purposes, in much the same way as cable and satellite TV services, and (2) an announcement by the head of the incentive auction task force that the auction by which some of the broadcast TV spectrum will be purchased from TV users and resold to wireless carriers for broadband wireless uses will be postponed from its expected date in the summer of 2015 until early 2016.  We will write about the postponement of the auction later.  But what does the MVPD proposal mean?

The MVPD issue is one that we last wrote about here.  At the urging of some OTT providers, apparently including Aereo, the FCC has been urged to treat these providers, when they provide “linear” programming (programming that is provided at set times on a set schedule, in the manner of broadcast TV or cable programming, as opposed to the on-demand programming of a Netflix or Hulu), in the same fashion as cable and satellite.  The Chairman, in his blog post, announces his support for an FCC proceeding to review that proposal, apparently looking to use linear Internet programmers as a new competitive force against cable and satellite TV.  By treating these services as MVPDs, they could get access to over-the-air TV programming (if they can negotiate retransmission consent agreements with the TV stations) and equal access to programming provided by vertically integrated cable programmers (those programmers that have attributable ownership from cable system operators).  But, obviously, there are some big “ifs” here.
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Could a change in the FCC treatment of Internet delivered video services be in the works – and how would that affect services like Aereo?  There were a number of published articles last week that suggested that the FCC was considering extending the definition of a Multichannel video programming distributor (MVPD) to over-the-top video providers or, as they are apparently being referred to, as Online Video Distributors (OVD) who provide linear programming like a cable or satellite company (as opposed to an on-demand provider like NetFlix).  While Chairman Wheeler at a press conference following last week’s open FCC meeting reportedly stated that the issue was “kicking around” implying that no decisions had been made, the FCC did announce that it was making a long-outstanding proceeding to look at this issue into a “permit but disclose” proceeding, meaning that parties can lobby the FCC on the issue as long as they file statements for the record disclosing the substance of their conversations with decision-makers.  What does all this mean?

If the Commission were to consider OVDs to be MVPDs, they would presumably be covered by all of the rules that apply to cable and satellite – including provisions that allow equal access to cable network programming in which the cable companies have a financial interest, and would also be subject to the must carry-retransmission consent regime that is applicable to other MVPDs, requiring MVPDs to negotiate with (and in many cases pay) TV stations to carry their programming.  The open proceeding to consider OVDs as MVPDs was started by a company called Sky Angel that focused on family-friendly programming.  The service initially delivered its programming by satellite, but migrated it to the Internet, at which time they wanted access to cable programming including Animal Planet.  When access to that programming was denied, they complained to the FCC.  The FCC staff initially denied the complaint, determining that MVPDs had to be “facility based,” meaning that they had to own the actual facilities that delivered the programming to the consumer.  The full Commission over two  years ago asked for public comment on whether this decision was correct – we wrote about that request for comment here and here – and the proceeding has essentially sat at the FCC ever since, until it began to get some renewed interest in connection with the Aereo case.
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The Supreme Court decision in the Aereo case seemed to be the end of the line for the service that was retransmitting television stations signals without consent, as it found that the broadcasters were entitled to an injunction to force Aereo to cease the public performance of their signals without consent.  In fact, Aereo itself seemed to think so too, shutting off its service soon after the decision.  But in a move that was surprising to some, Aereo has apparently not thrown in the towel, and it is now back in Court with a two-pronged argument as to why its service is still viable (see its letter to the Court here).  First, it argues that, as the Supreme Court seemed to think that Aereo acted like a cable system and should be treated in the same manner as a cable system for purposes of determining whether its retransmission of a television stations signal was a public performance, it might as well be treated like a cable system for all purposes, and thus it should be entitled to carry the signals of TV stations pursuant to the statutory license granted to cable systems by Section 111 of the Copyright Act.  Second, it argues that, even if it does not qualify for treatment as a cable system, it should nevertheless be able to retransmit television signals – just not in real time, as the Aereo contends that the Court decision only prevented simultaneous and near simultaneous retransmissions of the television stations’ signals.  Offering once again a fearless prediction – I doubt these arguments will help Aereo any more than did their arguments before the Supreme Court.

Admittedly, their argument that they qualify as a cable system under the Copyright Act has some appeal.  In fact, as we noted in our summary of the oral argument before the Supreme Court, the Justices even asked why the company did not qualify as a cable company.  Section 111 of the Copyright Act defines a cable system as follows:

A “cable system” is a facility, located in any State, territory, trust territory, or possession of the United States, that in whole or in part receives signals transmitted or programs broadcast by one or more television broadcast stations licensed by the Federal Communications Commission, and makes secondary transmissions of such signals or programs by wires, cables, microwave, or other communications channels to subscribing members of the public who pay for such service.

That language is seemingly broad, covering not just what most of us think as a cable system (one that uses wires to transmit TV programming to the customer), as it talks expansively of “other communications channels” to deliver programming.  Of course, when satellite TV started, they were unsure of their status under this definition, and ended up getting a whole new section of the act to determine their ability to retransmit local TV signals to their subscribers.  But even if this section can be read expansively to cover Aereo, what does that get them?
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