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Congressional Committee hearings have the tendency to come across as a bit dry at times [read, a lot of the time]. Members of Congress attempt humor that falls flat, drop references to their local sports team, and respectfully disagree with their colleagues about legislation or Constitutional interpretation. The witnesses provide testimony from the perspective of their organizations/industries, take subtle jabs at the opposing position, and answer Members’ questions, or listen to Members use the majority of their question time to make drawn out positions statements.
However, yesterday’s Senate Commerce hearing on “The Cable Act at 20” was different. It became so feisty at one point that I expected popcorn and soft drinks to go along with the entertainment.
First of all, the topic is one that is relatable for the average consumer. The Committee discussed the impact of the Cable Television and Consumer Protection Act of 1992 on the video market and how it affects consumers 20 years later. We should congratulate the Senate Commerce Committee for their timing of this hearing. As cable prices continue to rise, and growth in online video outlets like Netlifx, Hulu, Vimeo continues, the issue of video content and the rules that regulate how consumers access content become more relevant. Suddenly Congress does not seem so esoteric.
Senator Rockefeller kicked off the hearing with several core questions about the ’92 Cable Act:
- Why hasn’t competition succeeded in
bringing cable rates down?
- And providing more choices?
- And providing more selections within those choices?
- Should the protections in the Cable Act for various entities be maintained?
- How do we make sure that consumers are protected and see real benefits as video moves to the Internet, where people are increasingly watching?
What followed was an enlightening and (and somewhat revealing) information session about the witnesses’ industries, their thoughts on who’s to blame for why video prices are so high, and what can be done to protect consumers. Here’s my take on the witness testimony:
National Association of Broadcasters rep: “Retransmission consent is great. We shouldn’t change a thing. The cable guys are the reason your constituents pay too much for content. Think of your local broadcasters in West Virginia, South Dakota, Arkansas (and any other State represented by Senators on the Committee). Hey look, I’ve got graphs!”
Time Warner Cable rep: “The ’92 Cable Act is outdated. Do you know many special perks these broadcasters receive and how much protection they get from you guys (the government)? They don’t need all of this protection anymore. I’m right, he’s wrong. Listen to these stats and figures I have!”
CBS rep: Retransmission consent is fine. There’s no dysfunctional marketplace. Don’t change anything at all. Not for us, but think of the little guys. You wouldn’t want to hurt the little guys, would you? If that happens South Carolinians might have to rely on broadcaster services from Atlanta, or even (gasp) New York City!
American Cable Association rep: Everything CBS just said is wrong. I will spend the next few minutes explaining how wrong CBS is.
Consumer Federation of America rep: Cable and broadcast are both guilty. Spectrum sharing is the way of the future. Let’s look at unlicensed spectrum more. Exclusive broadcast licenses are the original sin here.
Academic: Principled deregulation is the way to go. Repeal compulsory licenses.
Here is the link to the complete hearing, so you can see the entire ping ponged debate unfold for yourself.
All of the witnesses recognize that the cost of cable service for the consumer has increased significantly in the time since the 1992 Cable Act was passed, they just cast blame on the other guys for passing those costs along to the consumers (cable blames broadcast, broadcast blames cable). Whether the two factions will ever be on the same page is anyone guess, but as John Bergmayer points out in his white paper Tomorrowvision, there are real policy changes that Congress needs to make to improve the future of video.
The Future of Video subject is one that we at Public Knowledge intend to follow closely over the next several months. In fact, PK President Gigi Sohn testified at last month’s Future of Video hearing. We’re happy that Congress is considering updating a seriously outdated regulatory structure that is keeping TV stuck in the past. Perhaps, Congress, the cable companies and broadcasters will find a way to hold hands (or hold their noses) and work together for the best interests of the consumers.