Gigi Sohn, the founder of public interest group Public Knowledge, has argued that the FCC can require interim carriage of broadcast signals to avoid blackouts during retransmission consent negotiating impasses. However, some industry observers say that in her new position as FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s special counsel for external affairs, she may change her tune on some key issues now that she is officially representing the FCC. Says one: “She has to think about whether a court will uphold an action, and in the past she has shown an ability to be pragmatic.”
Retrans Reform Advocate Sohn On FCC Team
Gigi Sohn, the long-time public watchdog group advocate and critic of broadcast industry deregulation hired Monday by Tom Wheeler, the FCC’s new chairman, has made no secret of the fact that she is a proponent of retransmission consent reform.
In fact, Public Knowledge, the watchdog group that Sohn headed and helped form 12 years ago, has argued that the FCC can require interim carriage of broadcast signals to avoid blackouts during retransmission consent negotiating impasses.
In addition, the group — which is a partner in the American Television Alliance, the Time Warner Cable-backed group leading the lobbying charge for retransmission consent reform in Washington — has argued that the FCC can require stalemated parties to retransmission consent negotiations to undergo binding arbitration.
The FCC has previously held that it is powerless to do much more than use its bully pulpit to encourage broadcasters and pay TV operators to resolve retransmission consent impasses without blacking out broadcast programming to consumers. “Absolutely ridiculous,” says Public Knowledge of retransmission consent, on the group’s website.
“She has favored retransmission reform, opposed ownership deregulation, and in general favored almost any other kind of regulation,” said one broadcasting industry attorney who asked not to be identified.
“If I were in the broadcasting business, I wouldn’t like it, but what are you going to do about it?” added another veteran Washington communications industry lobbyist.
Still, some broadcast industry sources predict that Sohn, who has been named Wheeler’s special counsel for external affairs, may change her tune on some key issues now that she is officially representing the FCC.
“Just because she took a certain position as an advocate, does not mean she will press the FCC to do the same thing, particularly when the great majority of people believe the courts would reverse any effort by the FCC to regulate retransmission consent,” said John Hane, a prominent communications industry attorney. “She has to think about whether a court will uphold an action, and in the past she has shown an ability to be pragmatic,” Hane continued.
Added Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters: “NAB will continue to make the case that fair retrans compensation now being realized by broadcasters will allow local TV stations to remain competitive against giant pay TV companies like Time Warner Cable, DirecTV and Dish.”
Still, Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the cable TV and wireless industries, has also expressed concerns about retransmission consent blackouts. “What does bother me … is when consumers are held hostage over corporate disputes, and if I’m fortunate enough to be confirmed, that will be something that I will be looking at,” Wheeler told lawmakers during his June 18 confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee.