Does Senator Thune Embrace the Underlying Principle of ‘Strong’ Net Neutrality?

Posted by | August 11, 2014 | Broadband Internet, Video | One Comment

Last Friday Broadcasting and Cable reported that the Senate Commerce Committee is proposing to replace market negotiations for retransmission consent with mandatory à la carte pricing for broadcast programming. The ‘local choice’ proposal would require TV stations to either (1) provide their programming to pay-TV operators for free or (2) offer their programming to pay-TV subscribers for a set per-subscriber price on an à la carte basis.

By eliminating any potential for market negotiations between pay-TV operators (who transmit the video content to subscribers) and TV stations (who provide the video content), the proposal would have the effect of separating content from distribution. It just so happens that this is the same goal that pro-net neutrality groups seek to achieve.

It should be no surprise that the American Television Alliance (ATVA), a coalition comprised primarily of pay-TV operators and non-profits who support ‘strong’ net neutrality, called the proposal “a real win for consumers.” ATVA’s campaign to prohibit market negotiations between pay-TV operators and broadcasters represents a page right out of the net neutrality playbook.

The surprise is the alleged involvement of Senator Thune in the proposal, a long-time opponent of net neutrality. In its statement supporting the ‘local choice’ proposal, ATVA thanked Committee Chairman Rockefeller and Ranking Member Thune for their bi-partisan efforts on the proposal. Brainstorming during a meeting is one thing, but I can’t imagine Senator Thune would endorse a proposal that starts so far down the slippery slope toward per se net neutrality rules.

Net neutrality aside, it would seem odd for Senator Thune to endorse the ‘local choice’ proposal given the near unanimous condemnation of an à la carte approach by conservative and free market thinkers the last time it was seriously considered. Adam Thierer, one of à la carte’s most ardent critics, wrote in the National Review that à la carte was “just more command-and-control federal mandates falsely packaged as ‘market-based’ reforms.” As he quite rightly noted, “True market reform would involve greater FCC deregulation of the video marketplace to encourage more market entry and greater programming options.”

Even the purported goal of the ‘local choice’ proposal makes no sense. It is reportedly intended to end ‘blackouts’, but would do nothing to end the ongoing standoff between Time Warner Cable and DirecTV over the cable channel that offers Los Angeles Dodgers games.

Would Senator Thune introduce a bill to end blackouts that leaves the biggest blackout of the year completely untouched? Unlikely. To the extent Senator Thune believes that mandating à la carte is the right solution for blackouts, he would presumably apply it to all video programming channels — broadcast, cable, satellite, and online.

Unless a press release appears on Senator Thune’s website soon, I expect the ‘local choice’ proposal will amount to nothing more than an August reverie.

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