Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler is on a mission to crack down on TV station sharing arrangements, particularly ones that look like efforts to skirt the rules.
With local caps on ownership and no rules explicitly against them, broadcasters have used joint sales agreements (JSAs) and shared news and other services agreements to extend their reach, and profits, without violating FCC rules.
But Chairman Wheeler has made it clear to broadcasters, in private meetings and public notices, that such arrangements will soon have a higher hurdle to overcome. Chairman Wheeler’s sword and shield is the public interest standard, which permits the commission to disallow deals even when they do not violate antitrust laws -- or even FCC rules, apparently.
The Federal Trade Commission has told the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth District that the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) does not preempt state privacy protections for teenagers' online information.
That came in an amicus filing to the court in a case involving Facebook's Sponsored Stories feature that allegedly "deploys" users' names and images without their consent, which would violate California privacy and unfair competition law, said the FTC.
While Facebook settled the class action suit, which was filed in district court, some of the members of the class objected and challenged the settlement, saying Facebook had not ensured that valid parental consent would be needed for Sponsored Stories. The court rejected that appeal, saying that COPPA "may 'bar any efforts by plaintiffs to use state law to impose a parental consent requirement for minors over the age of 13.' COPPA's online privacy protections only apply to Web sites targeted to kids under 13."
Sinclair says it will restructure its Allbritton deal to make it more palatable to the Federal Communications Commission, which is looking closely at sharing agreements coupled with financial arrangements such as purchase options.
The FCC, under new chairman Tom Wheeler, has signaled tied arrangements such as those in the Sinclair/Allbritton deal would have a high hurdle and now Sinclair is offering to remove those hurdles in the interests of getting a deal done.
Sinclair said it was concerned about meeting the one-year July 27 date for closing the merger, after which it can be terminated from either side.
The Obama Administration launched its latest multistakeholder process on standards and best practices for improving the notice and takedown system for infringing Internet content.
The goal is to come up with voluntary standards and avoid the scorched earth debate that took down the Stop Online Piracy Act legislation in 2013. The day-long meeting, which was overseen by the Department of Commerce and hosted by the US Patent and Trademark Office, appeared to find common ground on the need to focus on one issue rather than tackle several at once. That issue was a standardized template for the notice and takedown regime under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which is the way content rights holders and ISPs inform Web users of allegedly infringing content.
A representative of the Motion Picture Association of America agreed that standardized templates was a good topic to start with. He also said that the focus should be on a process that was effective, not just efficient. The point is not to generate millions of notices, but to cut down on the need for them by cutting down on infringement, he added.
Comcast and Time Warner Cable initially broached the subject of a possible merger almost a year ago, before deciding to pull the trigger on a deal in February, according to documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
According to an S-4 registration statement filed by Comcast on March 20 outlining an upcoming special shareholders’ meeting to approve its $69 billion deal to acquire Time Warner Cable, TWC executives first approached Comcast about a possible deal back in June 2013, shortly after Charter Communications began talks about its own possible deal with the New York-based cable operator.
Cable operators and other media company stakeholders in the Internet Governance Coalition say they welcome the National Telecommunications & Information Administration's announcement that it will work on transitioning US oversight functions over the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the domain naming system (DNS) body, to a nongovermental, multistakeholder model.
The coalition said that it embraces the opportunity to help with that transition. "We especially applaud NTIA's resolve to 'maintain the security, stability, and resiliency of the Internet DNS' and not to 'accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or an inter-governmental organization solution.' The latter would be a definite nonstarter."
The coalition unites edge players and cable and telecommunications Internet service providers (ISPs), networks and tech companies. Its members include Amazon, AT&T, Cisco Systems, Comcast NBCUniversal, Google, Juniper Networks, Microsoft, Telefónica, Disney, Time Warner Cable, Twenty-First Century Fox, and Verizon. NTIA's move -- it has been the "historic steward" of the domain naming system -- is consistent with the Obama Administration's support of a multistakeholder model of Internet governance.
The switch-over won't be for a while, though, as the NTIA's current contract with ICANN is not up until Sept 30, 2015, and in the interim it will continue in its stewardship role.
The National Cable and Telecommunications Association told the Senate that the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA) is an appropriate venue for retransmission changes as well as "discrete" video reforms, but that those should not include applying multichannel video programming distributor (MVPD) regulations to over-the-top.
In response to the Senate Commerce Committee request for input on STELA reauthorization, NCTA said that another five-year renewal was about right, but with a more technologically-neutral approach that treats functionally equivalent services alike.
"Congress should examine the Act broadly, to ensure that the law does not confer any regulatory advantage or disadvantage based on the use of any particular technology," NCTA told the committee. The association said that Congress should not extend "existing competitive protections for the traditional video marketplace [the committee's wording] to online video providers."
The FCC is currently considering whether to extend program carriage, access and other protections to over-the-top providers. But NCTA argues the online video space is already competitive and flourishing. "There is no need to extend any provisions of the 1992 Act to online video distributors," it said, but added that if the Congress did extent protections, it must also extend the "commensurate obligations of that Act."
The "clearly erroneous inputs and technically unsound assumptions" in the Federal Communications Commission's band plan proposals on repacking and interference methodologies must be abandoned or risk a failed incentive auction. That was the message from broadcasters, commercial and noncommercial, networks and stations to the FCC on March 18.
Broadcasters are accusing the FCC of cutting corners on its variable band plan proposal and warn it will be "playing with fire" if it attempts to lowball the interference problems inherent in that approach to repacking broadcasters after the 2015 incentive auctions to free up broadcast spectrum for broadband wireless.
In comments to the FCC, the National Association of Broadcasters, whose members include the broadcast networks, teamed with the network affiliate associations, PBS, CPB and the Association of Public Television Stations to advise the FCC where they thought it was going wrong with its proposed band plan, saying its repacking methodology would be illegal not to mention, though they did, creating "significant interference" issues.
The National Association of Broadcasters has taken aim at the Department of Justice comments supporting a Federal Communications Commission proposal to make some TV joint sales agreements attributable as ownership interests, as the FCC does in radio.
DOJ told the FCC that the commission should treat TV joint sales agreements (JSAs) as attributable ownership interests, and that shared sales agreements should be looked at on a case-by-case basis. The FCC has only proposed making JSAs of more than 15% of another station's ad sales attributable -- as do TV programming agreements for more than 15% of airtime. But DOJ said any JSA should be attributable.
In a submission to the FCC's various ownership dockets, NAB said DOJ's policy recommendation is based on both false and dated assumptions that broadcasting is the relevant antitrust market, rather than acknowledging competition from non-broadcast competitors like cable and other multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs). The association argues that DOJ is trying to further its own antitrust interests at the expense of the public interest standard.
In response to a request for input from the Senate Commerce Committee on the reauthorization of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA), Dish and DirecTV filed a joint response with a laundry list of suggestions including permanent reauthorization.
STELA, the law that grants a blanket license to satellite operators to deliver distant network affiliated TV stations into local markets, and the only must-pass video legislation on the horizon, could be a vehicle for various video reforms. However, the cleaner the bill the more likely it will pass by the Dec 31 deadline.
A House draft of STELA already sports a few video reforms, though ones that broadcasters, cable ops and satellite companies appear to be able to live with. In their response to the Senate, Dish and DirecTV were clearly on the side of striking while the iron is hot, which means using STELA as a vehicle for major retransmission and other reforms. "It is time for Congress to act, and STELA reauthorization presents the perfect vehicle," they wrote.