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Broadcast retransmission consent fees heat up, so does debate [update]

It doesn’t take much to trigger another round of debate over broadcast retransmission consent fees. New estimates from SNL Kagan project broadcast retransmission consent fees will increase to $10.3 billion by 2021, up from $6.2 Billion this year.

“The average $1.53 retrans fee that SNL Kagan anticipates the industry will receive across all broadcast networks by 2018 puts TV stations above all but five basic cable networks in terms of affiliate fees per sub per month, with ESPN ($8.80), TNT ($2.16), Fox News ($1.67), Fox Sports 1 ($1.57) and Disney Channel ($1.56) all still above that average mark. Most RSNs [regional sports networks] are projected to be significantly above this average retrans fee benchmark for broadcast stations.”

The debate over the retransmission consent regime has been an ongoing one in Washington practically since the Cable Act became law in 1995 and any new data often reignites the familiar battle. Retrans reform advocates complain that the current system leads to too many blackouts, calling for the Federal Communications Commission and Congress to do something. According to the American Television Alliance, there have been 45 blackouts this year.

Broadcasters counter that stations are only looking for their fair share and that the broadcast fees are only about a tenth of the programming fees paid by pay TV companies.

On the same day Kagan put out its new numbers, perennial retrans gadfly Mediacom CEO Rocco Commisso fired off a letter to the FCC, badgering the agency take up reform to put a stop to rising fees.

“While you have been chairman, already bloated annual retrans costs have doubled, swelling by another $3 billion a year – a larger increase than in any similar period since retransmission consent was created,” Commisso wrote in a petition filed with the FCC Tuesday.

Commisso complained that all his efforts, proposals and requests to meet with the chairman and the FCC were set aside, compared to net neutrality, which the chairman jumped on.

“Although this sad history indicates that our gesture will be futile, we are today presenting the commission with yet another opportunity to help ordinary Americans. Specifically, Mediacom is filing a petition asking the FCC to adopt rules preventing a local broadcast station from imposing a blackout unless its signal is available for free over-the-air or via Internet streaming to 90% of the homes in the relevant market,” Commisso wrote.

TVFreedom.org representing broadcasters shot back that Mediacom had a lot of nerve to file “such a self-serving petition.”

“Consumers like local TV– as evidenced by the popularity of local news and broadcast network programming. What they don’t like is lousy Mediacom-style customer service, bait-and-switch pay TV billing practices, excessive early termination fees, and outrageous equipment rental fees that cost subscribers more than $7 billion annually,” said Rob Kenny TVFreedom’s director of public affairs.

Despite the dust-up, any real reform in retransmission consent isn’t likely to happen any time soon. The FCC has in the past said it has limited authority. House commerce leadership has put an update of the nation’s communications laws on its agenda, but it’s a gargantuan undertaking that could take as many years as the last update in 1996.