Thursday, July 25, 2019

Modern TV Act Would Remove Old Rules, Bring Video Policy Up to Date

The Modern Television Act of 2019 is promising new legislation that would bring federal video policy into greater alignment with 21st century market realities. Introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on July 25 by Reps. Steve Scalise and Anna Eshoo, the Modern TV Act would repeal or at least reduce a number of old legacy broadcast TV and cable regulations that were based on a now-obsolete picture of the video market. The Modern TV Act is a bipartisan compromise measure that the 116th Congress ought to take up in earnest this year.

Among its provisions, the Modern TV Act would eliminate distant signal importation prohibitions, syndicated exclusivity rules, network non-duplication rules, authority to regulate local cable rates under Section 623, and cable leased access rules. Most of those rules involve dealings between market participants that own video programming and video service providers that distribute programming to retail subscribers. Once those rules are eliminated, video programmers and video service providers can, in most instances, simply negotiate contracts to address which programming receives carriage in which local TV markets. The Modern TV Act also would eliminate, or at least largely eliminate, cable and satellite compulsory licenses for carrying copyrighted video programming, thereby allowing parties to negotiate copyright royalties.

The Modern TV Act moves firmly in the direction of establishing a federal video policy that matches the competitive conditions of today's innovative video marketplace. For several years, Free State Foundation scholars have called attention to the fact that legacy regulations of broadcast, cable, and direct broadcast satellite (DBS) TV services are based largely on early 1990s, or even earlier, assumptions about the analog and VCR-era video market. But those regulations are now hopelessly out of touch with today's marketplace. 

The days are long gone when the video service choices of most Americans were largely limited to over-the-air (OTA) broadcast TV or a single cable operator. Today, most Americans can choose between a cable provider and two DBS providers, while many also have access to a former "telco" video services provider. Unlike the days when cable operators had a 91% market share among pay-TV services, at year's-end 2017, cable served 55.2% of multi-channel video programming distributor (MVPD) subscribers, DBS served nearly 33.5%, and "telco MVPDs" serviced 11.3%. Meanwhile, in 2018 antenna use for OTA broadcast TV reached its highest level since 2005, with 31% of U.S. households having an antenna on at least one TV. Online video distributor (OVD) services have also dramatically transformed the video market. In early 2019, Netflix had over 60 million U.S. subscribers to its streaming video service, while Amazon Prime and Hulu had 101 million and 28 million. Widespread adoption of OVD services has been recognized as an important cause of annual MVPD subscriber losses going back to 2013. Total MVPD subscriptions were down to 94 million at year's-end 2017, and sharp declines have been reported for 2018 and 2019.

Legacy regulations geared toward last century's outdated technologies and less competitive, pre-Internet market conditions confer no benefit on consumers today. Instead, their continuation saddles broadcast, cable, and DBS TV service providers with burdensome compliance costs as well as restrictions that can inhibit their ability to compete with each other and with online competitors. 

Furthermore, as Free State Foundation President Randolph May and I have explained in numerous writingsmany legacy video regulations, including leased access rules, amount to forced access mandates. Requiring video service providers to carry video programming not of their own choosing violates their First Amendment free speech rights. The Modern TV Act's proposed repeal of leased access rules would better respect the free speech rights of cable providers. 

To help bring federal video policy up to date, the 116th Congress should give prompt consideration to the Modern TV Act.