Shortly after Tom Wheeler assumed the Chairmanship at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), he summed up his regulatory philosophy as “competition, competition, competition.” Promoting competition has been the norm in communications policy since Congress adopted the Telecommunications Act of 1996 in order to “promote competition and reduce regulation.” The 1996 Act has largely succeeded in achieving competition in communications markets with one glaring exception: broadcast television. In stark contrast to the pro-competitive approach that is applied in other market segments, Congress and the FCC have consistently supported policies that artificially limit the ability of TV stations to compete or innovate in the communications marketplace.
Radio broadcasting was not subject to regulatory oversight initially. In the unregulated era, the business model for over-the-air broadcasting was “still very much an open question.” Various methods for financing radio stations were proposed or attempted, including taxes on the sale of devices, private endowments, municipal or state financing, public donations, and subscriptions. “We are today so accustomed to the dominant role of the advertiser in broadcasting that we tend to forget that, initially, the idea of advertising on the air was not even contemplated and met with widespread indignation when it was first tried.”
Section 303 of the Communications Act of 1934 thus provided the FCC with broad authority to authorize over-the-air subscription television service (STV). When the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals addressed this provision, it held that “subscription television is entirely consistent with [the] goals” of the Act. Analog STV services did not become widespread in the marketplace, however, due in part to regulatory limitations imposed on such services by the FCC. As a result, advertising dominated television revenue in the analog era.
The digital television (DTV) transition offered a new opportunity for TV stations to provide STV services in competition with MVPDs. The FCC had initially hoped that “multicasting” and other new capabilities provided by digital technologies would “help ensure robust competition in the video market that will bring more choices at less cost to American consumers.”
Despite the agency’s initial optimism, regulatory restrictions once again crushed the potential for TV stations to compete in other segments of the communications marketplace. When broadcasters proposed offering digital STV services with multiple broadcast and cable channels in order to compete with MVPDs, Congress held a hearing to condemn the innovation. Chairmen from both House and Senate committees threatened retribution against broadcasters if they pursued subscription television services — “There will be a quid pro quo.” Broadcasters responded to these Congressional threats by abandoning their plans to compete with MVPDs.
It’s hard to miss the irony in the 1996 Act’s approach to the DTV transition. Though the Act’s stated purposes are to “promote competition and reduce regulation, it imposed additional regulatory requirements on television stations that have stymied their ability to innovate and compete. The 1996 Act broadcasting provision requires that the FCC impose limits on subscription television services “so as to avoid derogation of any advanced television services, including high definition television broadcasts, that the Commission may require using such frequencies,” and prohibits TV stations from being deemed an MVPD. The FCC’s rules require TV stations to “transmit at least one over-the-air video programming signal at no direct charge to viewers” because “free, over-the-air television is a public good, like a public park, and might not exist otherwise.
These and other draconian legislative and regulatory limitations have forced TV stations to follow the analog television business model into the 21st Century while the rest of the communications industry innovated at a furious pace. As a result of this government-mandated broadcast business model, TV stations must rely on advertising and retransmission consent revenue for their survival.
Though the “public interest” status of TV stations may once have been considered a government benefit, it is rapidly becoming a curse. Congress and the FCC have both relied on the broadcast public interest shibboleth to impose unique and highly burdensome regulatory obligations on TV stations that are inapplicable to their competitors in the advertising and other potential markets. This disparity in regulatory treatment has increased dramatically under the current administration — to the point that is threatening the viability of broadcast television.
Here are just three examples of the ways in which the current administration has widened the regulatory chasm between TV stations and their rivals:
- In 2012, the FCC required only TV stations to post “political file” documents online, including the rates charged by TV stations for political advertising; MVPDs are not required to post this information online. This regulatory disparity gives political ad buyers and incentive to advertise on cable rather than broadcast channels and forces TV stations to disclose sensitive pricing information more widely than their competitors.
- This year the FCC prohibited joint sales agreements for television stations only; MVPDs and online content distributors are not subject to any such limitations on their advertising sales. This prohibition gives MVPDs and online advertising platforms a substantial competitive advantage in the market for advertising sales.
- This year the FCC also prohibited bundled programming sales by broadcasters only; cable networks are not subject to any limitations on the sale of programming in bundles. This disparity gives broadcast networks an incentive to avoid limitations on their programming sales by selling exclusively to MVPDs (i.e., becoming cable networks).
The FCC has not made any attempt to justify the differential treatment — because there is no rational justification for arbitrary and capricious decision-making.
Sadly, the STELA process in the Senate is threatening to make things worse. Some legislative proposals would eliminate retransmission consent and other provisions that provide the regulatory ballast for broadcast television’s government mandated business model without eliminating the mandate. This approach would put a quick end to the administration’s “death by a thousand cuts” strategy with one killing blow. The administration must be laughing itself silly. When TV channels in smaller and rural markets go dark, this administration will be gone — and it will be up to Congress to explain the final TV transition.