ATVA’s New Trick: Slow Rolling Next Generation TV

The American Television Alliance (ATVA), one of the leading voices of the pay-TV industry, has a big problem. Up until now, ATVA’s primary raison d’être (that’s French for “how do we get people to keep funding us”) has been retransmission consent. When pay-TV companies want to resell programming from local television stations, they typically negotiate with local stations for that right. ATVA’s entire policy agenda revolved around trying to drive up its members’ profit margins by talking the government into interfering in private contractual negotiations on their behalf.

Unfortunately, ATVA had a bad year in that regard. Not a routinely bad year, more of a Charlie Sheen meltdown kind of year. ATVA’s retransmission consent campaign fell completely flat.

(In fairness, in order to prevail, ATVA would have to convince the government that your cable company is actually a sympathetic victim that just can’t quite squeeze enough money out of you every month. This was always a long shot.)

Having failed to hoodwink regulators into profitable market manipulation, ATVA is desperately seeking to raison a little more être heading into 2017 to justify continued contributions from its pay-TV benefactors. And ATVA thinks it has just the ticket: stifling innovation to protect its members from competition.

In April, broadcasters, together with representatives of the consumer electronics industry and public safety, asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to allow broadcasters to voluntarily use a new transmission standard that can offer better pictures, better sound, enhanced emergency alerting and expanded opportunities for diverse programming. It’s called Next Generation TV, and we think you’re going to love it.

ATVA knows this. Some of its members are beginning to offer 4K, ultra-high-definition programming, as are over-the-top service providers. If you’ve shopped for a television set lately, you know that 4K capability is becoming ubiquitous. It certainly seems to be where the market is headed. The only way broadcasters can offer such programming, and thus the only way consumers have the option of receiving this programming for free, is if the FCC allows broadcasters to deploy Next Generation TV.

And voila, ATVA’s 2017 membership renewal campaign: Slow Rolling Innovation to Protect Pay-TV Providers from Competition! (They’re still workshopping that slogan.) Want to take advantage of your new 4K television? If ATVA can stall approval of Next Gen TV, you won’t have a free over-the-air option for ultra-high-definition programming. ATVA’s members will be the only game in town. That ought to keep the checks rolling in!

So ATVA is earnestly advising the FCC that it should take special care to understand whether Next Gen TV “would allow broadcasters to collect the benefits of the transition…while externalizing much of the associated costs to others.”[1] They’ve even italicized benefits and costs to make sure the FCC notices.

There’s just one problem with ATVA’s 2017 fundraising drive: it’s transparently, embarrassingly anti-consumer. Stunning pictures, more immersive audio, enhanced emergency alerts and more diverse programming? Those are all benefits for consumers. Broadcasters are not seeking to externalize costs; they are expressly seeking permission from the FCC to make significant investments in their facilities to improve the service they offer – without government subsidies, without additional spectrum and without leaving viewers behind. It’s one thing to paint yourself into a rhetorical corner, it’s quite another to actually highlight the words paint and corner to make sure no one misses them.

We’re confident the FCC, once again, won’t be fooled. ATVA will just have to go back to the drawing board.

[1] Letter from Mike Chappell, Executive Director, ATVA to Marlene H. Dortch, Secretary, FCC, GN Docket No. 16-142 (Dec. 2, 2016) (emphasis in original).