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STELA Provides Immediate Opportunity to Bring Video into 21st Century | Commentary

With every passing day, our video laws grow more outdated and unable to keep up with the amazing changes in technology. Our current system of TV rules was created in 1992 and is based on decades of antiquated communications law.

There have been changes to video laws, and countless technological innovations, but the one constant has been our country’s emphasis on broadcasting. Broadcasting — sending information over the airwaves — served a useful purpose in the 20th Century. And millions of Americans still enjoy radio and TV broadcast content today.

But it’s time to acknowledge the distinction between the medium and the content. Broadcasters blur the lines because they recognize how archaic the medium has become.

Broadcasting is a one-way communication that enables a privileged few to use the public airwaves. In the 21st Century, there is no longer any reason for us to bind ourselves to this passive form of communication. Broadcasters focus on “emergencies,” but technological advances have shown mobile and online applications for emergency response will render this moot.

Instead, we should improve and expand how we interact with each other via two-way communication and over the Internet. That starts with updating our video laws so they reflect 21st Century technology.

Today, content is king. Consumers want access to information and entertainment via all platforms. But the major content providers — the broadcasters — are withholding information with unprecedented blackouts. There were a record 127 last year, 33 in 2014, and broadcasters now black out online programming. This will continue until we fix retransmission consent.

Retransmission consent is fundamentally flawed. It was created when consumers had two options for watching TV — rabbit ears or the local cable system. Today, consumers have multiple choices, but the rules allow broadcasters to charge whatever they want for programming. If pay-TV providers give in and pass on the higher fees, consumers complain.

Pay-TV providers are damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

That’s why there’s frustration from consumers. They don’t realize that retransmission consent is the real cause for higher cable bills and blackouts. They don’t understand our system of arcane TV rules — and why should they? We need new rules and regulations that serve consumers and reflect the technology of today.

Congress should update our communications laws. The next available opportunity is with the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA). If Congress ignores the calls from both parties to make reasonable reforms, consumers will continue to suffer. At the same time, our country will grow further shackled to a 20th Century form of communication.

Brian Frederick, Ph.D., is spokesman for American Television Alliance, a coalition of consumer groups, independent programmers, and pay-TV companies.