The leaders of the Senate Commerce Committee have given up on a proposal that would have allowed consumers to pick and choose which broadcast TV networks they wanted to pay for.
But the issue could surface again next year when lawmakers begin a broader rewrite of communications law.
Sens. Jay Rockefeller and John Thune had planned a committee vote for next week on their "Local Choice" proposal, but they were forced to pull the legislation due to opposition from other committee members.
"It probably would've been a tough vote, only because a lot of our guys had not had a lot of time to digest and process it," Thune, the top Republican on the committee, admitted to reporters Wednesday.
The proposal wouldn't have affected cable channels like ESPN, but it would have required broadcast networks like Fox, NBC, and CBS to set individual prices for their channels. Consumers could then choose which ones they wanted to pay for in an "a la carte" pricing system instead of the channels being part of larger bundles.
Broadcast channels are free to access over the air (if you have an antenna), but cable providers currently have to pay to carry them and have to offer them in their most basic tier. TV broadcasters are expected to pull in $4.3 billion in fees from cable companies this year, and the total could reach $7.6 billion by 2019, according to an analysis by SNL Kagan.
Supporters of Local Choice argued it could have helped consumers cut their skyrocketing cable bills.
But broadcasters launched a lobbying blitz against the proposal, warning it would limit access to local news during emergencies. They also argued that it would be unfair to impose an "a la carte" system on local broadcast stations but not little-watched cable channels like TruTV.
Although Thune admitted "this is probably not the time" for his proposal, he argued that the debate over the past few weeks on the issue "sets the stage for a fuller and broader discussion next year."
House Republicans have said they want to work on a sweeping rewrite of communications law next year. If Republicans take control of the Senate, Thune would be poised to oversee the Senate's work on the regulatory overhaul as chairman of the Commerce Committee. Rockefeller, the current chairman of the panel, will retire at the end of the year.
But Congress isn't done fighting over TV issues yet this year. Thune and Rockefeller had planned to attach their Local Choice proposal to legislation to reauthorize a satellite TV law that is set to expire at the end of the year.
They're still pushing a number of regulatory tweaks to limit the negotiating power of broadcasters. TV stations wouldn't be allowed to group together in negotiations for carriage deals with cable providers and wouldn't be able to stop cable providers from importing certain out-of-market stations. The legislation would also direct the Federal Communications Commission to consider whether to ban stations from pulling their online videos during negotiations with cable companies.
The National Association of Broadcasters issued a statement applauding Thune and Rockefeller for giving up on Local Choice, but the group said it is still "seriously concerned with a number of provisions" in the satellite TV reauthorization bill.
Thune told reporters that the committee plans to push ahead with the remaining provisions in the bill next week, and that broadcasters should be happy with their victory.
"I hope the broadcasters will recognize it was a huge give to give the Local Choice issues up," Thune said.
"Obviously that was something they were advocating vigorously for. A lot of the other stuff that's in the bill are pretty modest reforms, and I hope they'll find their way, if not to support it, at least not to oppose it."
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