FCC Changing Cable Program Carriage Rules

By Tracey E. Schelmetic August 02, 2011

Do you remember an attempt at legislation years ago designed to give cable customers more choice in the channels they pay for by allowing “a la carte” purchasing of channels? If you do, you may also remember how the cable companies conspired via lobbying to kill the bill.

The FCC is once again trying to provide cable customers with a little more control once again. The agency has created new rules that aim to make it easier for independent television programmers to get their channels carried in cable system lineups and to prevent cable companies from discriminating against independent channels that may compete with their own networks, reports the Associated Press today.

Cable companies and content providers have never had an easy relationship, and the FCC has frequently had to step in to resolve issues. The Tennis Network and the NFL Network, for instance, filed complaints with the FCC in recent years accusing Comcast Corp. of discriminating against them by relegating them to a premium sports tier that reaches only a small number of subscribers.

Comcast, the nation's largest cable company, owns some of its own sports networks including the Golf Channel and Versus. The company also recently acquired NBC Universal, which owns popular cable channels such as CNBC, Bravo and Oxygen. While the NFL complaint was ultimately settled, the Tennis Channel case is still pending before the FCC, reports the AP.

“Modernizing these rules is essential to ensure that consumers have the ability to view a variety of diverse programming at the lowest possible cost and hopefully to foster more independent production,” said FCC commissioner Michael Copps.

The FCC's existing program carriage rules, which date back to 1992, prohibit cable operators from discriminating against unaffiliated channels by refusing to carry them or placing them in premium tiers with fewer subscribers. The rules also prohibit cable companies from demanding a financial stake in a programmer in exchange for carriage or demanding exclusive access to channel.

Unfortunately, enforcement of these rules has been difficult. Program carriage complaints in some cases take years to resolve. To remedy this, the new rules adopted by the FCC yesterday would impose deadlines to ensure that most program carriage complaints are resolved within about a year. The new rules also allow the FCC to require a cable company to continue carrying a channel while it considers a complaint, even if the existing carriage contract has expired, if the programmer can show that it is likely to win the case and meet other requirements.

The FCC has said it may make further changes to the laws, and is considering allowing damage awards in disputes and clarifying that cable companies that retaliate against a programmer for filing a complaint with the FCC could face charges of discrimination.

Predictably, the cable companies are unhappy and already complaining about “unjustified” “regulatory burdens.”

“Today's video programming and distribution marketplace is highly competitive, and the vast majority of carriage deals are successfully negotiated without any need for government involvement,” Comcast said in a statement.

Tracey Schelmetic is a contributing editor for TechZone360. To read more of Tracey's articles, please visit her columnist page.

Edited by Rich Steeves

TechZone360 Contributor

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