The free market position on telecom reform has become rather confused of late. Erstwhile conservative Senator Thune is now cosponsoring a version of Senator Rockefeller’s previously proposed video reform bill, bundled into satellite legislation (the Satellite Television Access and Viewer Rights Act or “STAVRA”) that would also include a provision dubbed “Local Choice.” Some free marketeers have defended the bill as a step in the right direction.
Although it looks as if the proposal may be losing steam this Congress, the legislation has been described as a “big and bold idea,” and it’s by no means off the menu. But it should be.
It has been said that politics makes for strange bedfellows. Indeed, people who disagree on just about everything can sometimes unite around a common perceived enemy. Take carriage disputes, for instance. Perhaps because, for some people, a day without The Bachelor is simply a day lost, an unlikely alliance of pro-regulation activists like Public Knowledge and industry stalwarts like Dish has emerged to oppose the ability of copyright holders to withhold content as part of carriage negotiations.
Senator Rockefeller’s Online Video Bill was the catalyst for the Local Choice amendments to STAVRA. Rockefeller’s bill did, well, a lot of terrible things, from imposing certain net neutrality requirements, to overturning the Supreme Court’s Aereo decision, to adding even more complications to the already Byzantine morass of video programming regulations.
But putting Senator Thune’s lipstick on Rockefeller’s pig can’t save the bill, and some of the worst problems from Senator Rockefeller’s original proposal remain.
Among other things, the new bill is designed to weaken the ability of copyright owners to negotiate with distributors, most notably by taking away their ability to withhold content during carriage disputes and by forcing TV stations to sell content on an a la carte basis.
Video distribution issues are complicated — at least under current law. But at root these are just commercial contracts and, like any contracts, they rely on a couple of fundamental principles.
First is the basic property right. The Supreme Court (at least somewhat) settled this for now (in Aereo), by protecting the right of copyright holders to be compensated for carriage of their content. With this baseline, distributors must engage in negotiations to obtain content, rather than employing technological workarounds and exploiting legal loopholes.
Second is the related ability of contracts to govern the terms of trade. A property right isn’t worth much if its owner can’t control how it is used, governed or exchanged.
Finally, and derived from these, is the issue of bargaining power. Good-faith negotiations require both sides not to act strategically by intentionally causing negotiations to break down. But if negotiations do break down, parties need to be able to protect their rights. When content owners are not able to withhold content in carriage disputes, they are put in an untenable bargaining position. This invites bad faith negotiations by distributors.
The STAVRA/Local Choice proposal would undermine the property rights and freedom of contract that bring The Bachelor to your TV, and the proposed bill does real damage by curtailing the scope of the property right in TV programming and restricting the range of contracts available for networks to license their content.
The bill would require that essentially all broadcast stations that elect retrans make their content available a la carte — thus unbundling some of the proverbial sticks that make up the traditional property right. It would also establish MVPD pass-through of each local affiliate. Subscribers would pay a fee determined by the affiliate, and the station must be offered on an unbundled basis, without any minimum tier required – meaning an MVPD has to offer local stations to its customers with no markup, on an a la carte basis, if the station doesn’t elect must-carry. It would also direct the FCC to open a rulemaking to determine whether broadcasters should be prohibited from withholding their content online during a dispute with an MPVD.
“Free market” supporters of the bill assert something like “if we don’t do this to stop blackouts, we won’t be able to stem the tide of regulation of broadcasters.” Presumably this would end blackouts of broadcast programming: If you’re an MVPD subscriber, and you pay the $1.40 (or whatever) for CBS, you get it, period. The broadcaster sets an annual per-subscriber rate; MVPDs pass it on and retransmit only to subscribers who opt in.
But none of this is good for consumers.
When transaction costs are positive, negotiations sometimes break down. If the original right is placed in the wrong hands, then contracting may not assure the most efficient outcome. I think it was Coase who said that.
But taking away the ability of content owners to restrict access to their content during a bargaining dispute effectively places the right to content in the hands of distributors. Obviously, this change in bargaining position will depress the value of content. Placing the rights in the hands of distributors reduces the incentive to create content in the first place; this is why the law protects copyright to begin with. But it also reduces the ability of content owners and distributors to reach innovative agreements and contractual arrangements (like certain promotional deals) that benefit consumers, distributors and content owners alike.
The mandating of a la carte licensing doesn’t benefit consumers, either. Bundling is generally pro-competitive and actually gives consumers more content than they would otherwise have. The bill’s proposal to force programmers to sell content to consumers a la carte may actually lead to higher overall prices for less content. Not much of a bargain.
There are plenty of other ways this is bad for consumers, even if it narrowly “protects” them from blackouts. For example, the bill would prohibit a network from making a deal with an MVPD that provides a discount on a bundle including carriage of both its owned broadcast stations as well as the network’s affiliated cable programming. This is not a worthwhile — or free market — trade-off; it is an ill-advised and economically indefensible attack on vertical distribution arrangements — exactly the same thing that animates many net neutrality defenders.
Just as net neutrality’s meddling in commercial arrangements between ISPs and edge providers will ensure a host of unintended consequences, so will the Rockefeller/Thune bill foreclose a host of welfare-increasing deals. In the end, in exchange for never having to go three days without CBS content, the bill will make that content more expensive, limit the range of programming offered, and lock video distribution into a prescribed business model.
Former FCC Commissioner Rob McDowell sees the same hypocritical connection between net neutrality and broadcast regulation like the Local Choice bill:
According to comments filed with the FCC by Time Warner Cable and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, broadcasters should not be allowed to take down or withhold the content they produce and own from online distribution even if subscribers have not paid for it—as a matter of federal law. In other words, edge providers should be forced to stream their online content no matter what. Such an overreach, of course, would lay waste to the economics of the Internet. It would also violate the First Amendment’s prohibition against state-mandated, or forced, speech—the flip side of censorship.
It is possible that the cable companies figure that subjecting powerful broadcasters to anti-free speech rules will shift the political momentum in the FCC and among the public away from net neutrality. But cable’s anti-free speech arguments play right into the hands of the net-neutrality crowd. They want to place the entire Internet ecosystem, physical networks, content and apps, in the hands of federal bureaucrats.
While cable providers have generally opposed net neutrality regulation, there is, apparently, some support among them for regulations that would apply to the edge. The Rockefeller/Thune proposal is just a replay of this constraint — this time by forcing programmers to allow retransmission of broadcast content under terms set by Congress. While “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” sounds appealing in theory, here it is simply doubling down on a terrible idea.
What it reveals most of all is that true neutrality advocates don’t want government control to be limited to ISPs — rather, progressives like Rockefeller (and apparently some conservatives, like Thune) want to subject the whole apparatus — distribution and content alike — to intrusive government oversight in order to “protect” consumers (a point Fred Campbell deftly expands upon here and here).
You can be sure that, if the GOP supports broadcast a la carte, it will pave the way for Democrats (and moderates like McCain who back a la carte) to expand anti-consumer unbundling requirements to cable next. Nearly every economic analysis has concluded that mandated a la carte pricing of cable programming would be harmful to consumers. There is no reason to think that applying it to broadcast channels would be any different.
What’s more, the logical extension of the bill is to apply unbundling to all MVPD channels and to saddle them with contract restraints, as well — and while we’re at it, why not unbundle House of Cards from Orange is the New Black? The Rockefeller bill may have started in part as an effort to “protect” OVDs, but there’ll be no limiting this camel once its nose is under the tent. Like it or not, channel unbundling is arbitrary — why not unbundle by program, episode, studio, production company, etc.?
There is simply no principled basis for the restraints in this bill, and thus there will be no limit to its reach. Indeed, “free market” defenders of the Rockefeller/Thune approach may well be supporting a bill that ultimately leads to something like compulsory, a la carte licensing of all video programming. As I noted in my testimony last year before the House Commerce Committee on the satellite video bill:
Unless we are prepared to bear the consumer harm from reduced variety, weakened competition and possibly even higher prices (and absolutely higher prices for some content), there is no economic justification for interfering in these business decisions.
So much for property rights — and so much for vibrant video programming.
That there is something wrong with the current system is evident to anyone who looks at it. As Gus Hurwitz noted in recent testimony on Rockefeller’s original bill,
The problems with the existing regulatory regime cannot be understated. It involves multiple statutes implemented by multiple agencies to govern technologies developed in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, according to policy goals from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. We are no longer living in a world where the Rube Goldberg of compulsory licenses, must carry and retransmission consent, financial interest and syndication exclusivity rules, and the panoply of Federal, state, and local regulations makes sense – yet these are the rules that govern the video industry.
While video regulation is in need of reform, this bill is not an improvement. In the short run it may ameliorate some carriage disputes, but it will do so at the expense of continued programming vibrancy and distribution innovations. The better way to effect change would be to abolish the Byzantine regulations that simultaneously attempt to place thumbs of both sides of the scale, and to rely on free market negotiations with a copyright baseline and antitrust review for actual abuses.
But STAVRA/Local Choice is about as far from that as you can get.