Blog Post

Free antennas? Not good enough: the FCC should put a stop to TV blackouts

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

Last Friday, the head of the FCC told CBS(s cbs) and Time Warner Cable(s twc) that she would “consider appropriate action” if they didn’t end a fee dispute that has caused the popular channel to vanish from 3 million households. How’d that work out? Well, the blackout is about to enter its fourth week — and the only difference is that frustrated subscribers can now score a free antenna from Best Buy to receive CBS over the air.

Enough is enough. It’s time for the broadcast regulator to step in for real and put a stop to this. Doing so would not only let the good folks of New York, Dallas and Los Angeles get their “Under the Dome” and “60 Minutes” fix. It would also send a message to the TV industry to shop these blackout shenanigans which, in recent years, have become more and more common — from four in 2010 to 15 in 2011 to 22 in just the first half of 2012 alone, according to USA Today.

The blackouts themselves, recall, are the result of a breakdown in negotiations between the people who make TV — like CBS — and those who distribute it. When the two sides can’t agree on the price of a channel, the viewer gets stuck in the middle and shows vanish for days, weeks or months.

In the ordinary course of things, federal agencies shouldn’t take a hands-on role in setting prices in the private market. But, in the case of TV, the companies operate in a regulated environment that lets them rake in billions a year. It’s not unreasonable, then, for the FCC to step in to fix a regulated model that is clearly broken: the breakdown is evident not only in the growing number of blackouts, but in a system that force feeds customers unwanted bundles of channels at ever-higher prices.

Industry watchers have questioned whether the FCC can even get involved in the first place, noting that the negotiations turn on the broadcasters’ “consent” for retransmission. Sure, it can. As one expert notes, the FCC still possesses vast regulatory power and its the one that makes the rules for how cable companies and broadcasters negotiate in the first place.

At this point, it doesn’t matter which whether the cable company or the broadcaster is more wrong. There’s enough blame to go around: in this case, you can point to the scorched-earth tactics of Time Warner Cable’s lawyer or CBS’s insistence on selling its shows in bundles no one wants. A pox on both their houses.

Fortunately, this discussion will one day be irrelevant since consumers will buy their TV from the likes of Apple(s aapl), Aereo, Google(s goog) or some other over-the-top service. But for now, that era is still years away. In the meantime, the FCC should step in and do its job.

17 Responses to “Free antennas? Not good enough: the FCC should put a stop to TV blackouts”

  1. My TV has been “blacked out” for 38 years. I’ve never had one of these time-wasters in my house. To insist that government get involved in things like this is just plain downright silly. “My favorite breakfast cereal was taken off the market. Can the government get it back for me please?” Com’n people, grow up, get off the couch, and quit worrying about fictional garbage on TV.

  2. davids2443

    The writer is certainly within his rights to say that this will all go away sometime…, but the broadcasters, Cable, Satellite and Teleco’s aren’t about to give up there cash cow anythime soon or without the biggest fight you will ever see in Congress. The current TV model is here for at least a few years to come.

    many of your readers do not remember the landscape pre-must carry/fee paid. The FCC created these rules to encourage the broadcasters to allow the signal to be re-broadcast (a silly word) over the cable wires. Although this had been going on since the late ’40’s in much of Eastern Penna. Then the conversion to digital TV and the FCC allowed the Digital Millenium Copywrite Act enacted in 1998 to be written almost exclusively and entirely by the companies it was to enforce? Instead of continueing the “must carry” model they allowed this convoluted system to take over. Nobody is right, and it is a loose/loose situation for the public. Lets all remember that the airwaves are a regulated commodity, however broadcasters pay nothing for those airwaves except that they are under FCC rules. Cable TV was also regulated to some extent by localities, but that was over-ruled almost entirely by the the FCC regs.
    Must carry made a lot of sense. If a majority of viewers in the local market could receive a broadcast signal, the cable, or should I say television distributor/supplier had to, by law, carry that signal on their main tier. Seemed to make sense then, probably makes sense now. They don’t need to be compensated because that is what advertising is for. If the market grew, they could and should demand a larger slice from the advertiser…

  3. I find it interesting that the author thinks that this will all go away when we buy our TV programming from the likes of Apple, Aereo & Google. Does he think that the networks will provide it to them for free? What planet is he on?

  4. A couple of things:

    1. Broadcast TV is still the most-watched programming that a cable company carries on its channel lineup, so it is only fair that broadcasters (CBS, ABC, etc.) get paid for their content.

    2. Broadcasters need approval of ATSC 3.0 to put into effect changes that will be beneficial to their viewers. A new broadcast standard will allow broadcasters to implement a TV system that is more cellular in nature, thereby eliminating many of the reception problems that still plague OTA TV.

    3. Cable companies and telco’s should embrace and encourage broadband subscriptions rather than fighting over increasingly smaller margins of MVPD’s. The margins are much greater in broadband and if usage metering becomes the norm you may just see some MVPD’s exiting the cable business. James Dolan of Cablevision alluded to just that scenarios a few weeks ago, saying he could see a future when Cablevision was no longer in the cable TV biz.

    There is more but I have to run.

  5. Muddy Mudskipper

    Why don’t you stick to what you know, although I’m not sure what that is. Clearly you are totally clueless about the business of television. You’re not even making a concrete proposal.

  6. I am sure TWC thought this one through, for $20 most people will buy an indoor antenna, stick it on 1 TV, that will work marginal at best for the majority of their customers (these folks will conclude that they still need to pay for TV). The rest will do some research, get the right antenna for their location, put it outside in the right location & do it right. These folks will realize that 90% of the shows they watch & their NFL games are 100% free forever, plus the HD is actually better quality! If you do things right you really can live happily w/o Pay TV, you can even still have a DVR, TV Guide, etc. Not surprising, but ironic that the greedy corporate monopolies are the start of their own undoing…

    • freetvEE, again, not everyone can get a signal. At my old house I had an antenna in the attic that worked great for digital signals (but not analog). There I used an HD Homerun to provide DVR services. At my new house even a professional couldn’t install a proper antenna. Here I use a HD Homerun Prime and Comcast for DVR services.

      • If you can’t get a signal, but the broadcaster includes your location in their DMA “coverage area”, that should be what the FCC should be involved in. Because that station is fraudulently telling their advertisers that they are reaching your home when they charge ad rates.

  7. Copy_Right©Forever

    I think that as a writer you might be naive to think that as your conclusion states – consumers eventually buy these services from Apple, Aereo, Google, etc.

    As you can see in the CBS / Time Warner dispute, broadcasters don’t give away their product to anyone.

    So the conclusion should be that any agreements with internet distributers would be very hard earned agreements. In fact they haven’t been earned at all – yet.

    Besides, the TV interests might simply build their own service that runs on a web-app through AWS just like NetFlicks has. They really don’t need an internet middle-man to make this move. So, I suggest that the level of writing that we all read on this topic these days may be misdirected.

  8. Typical moronic liberal. Always asking the government for help. Isn’t the government already involved in too much of your life. Suck it up and read a book.

  9. Tetracycloide

    Retransmission should never have cost money in the first place and retransmission fes are the primary that has stagnated both OTA and basic cable alike.

  10. The FCC’s proposal should be for the OTA broadcasters to be forced to pay the cable company. It is in the broadcaster’s interest that their signal be carried on cable because they make more money from ads as a result of the wider exposure. If they don’t want to pay, then the cable companies should be given permission to transmit the network feed.

  11. Terry Marvin

    Saturday, August 24, 2013–9:54 am CST


    I think Time Warner oughta go ahead a pay CBS what they asked. The whole is ridiculous. I would like to be able to watch the Emmy awards and the new CBS Fall season. So, end the blackouts now. It’s so stupid.


    Terry (Dallas, Texas)

    • Greg Smith

      Let’s face it, if CBS pays what they are asked, it really means that the increase will be passed along to the subscribers. CBS will not let a fee increase eat into its pockets.

  12. should over the air TV even be retransmitted over cable or satellite? as people cut the cord with pay TV it just seem to make sense that we should have more high quality transmissions over the air that are good enough there is no reason to re-transmit.

    it would be great for this country is we could end up with a good selection of quality TV all over the air for free. encouraging antenna use actually may help this goal.

    • Not everyone can get a good OTA signal, particularly west of the Rockies where the terrain is hilly. Also, if you want cable and OTA, not all devices handle both. For example, the HD Homerun will do both, but the HD Homerun Prime doesn.t