Wheeler tips hand at siding with NAB on retrans reform

LAS VEGAS - Those hoping for FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to lead significant reform of rules governing broadcast retransmission negotiations are probably in for a long wait.

Appearing on a National Broadcasters Association conference stage today, Wheeler tipped his hand that he is siding with the NAB that significant reform is not needed. 

"So you agree with the NAB's position that 99 percent of deals get done, so why make a change?" he was asked by interviewer Marci Burdick, a former Georgia anchorwoman who is now an NAB executive committee member. 

Wheeler didn't deny it — he merely smiled. 

He tipped his hand only slightly less when Burdick asked about exclusivity rules in retrans negotiations, which have often resulted in blackouts of local stations for customers of involved pay-TV operators.

"Corporate bickering has resulted in consumer harm. I think that's why Congress has asked us to take a look at it," he said. 

With SNL Kagan projecting that broadcast retransmission fees will grow to $9.7 billion by 2020, and station blackouts now becoming a common occurrence, pay-TV lobbying groups including the American Cable Association have urged the FCC to step in and reform rules governing licensing talks with broadcasters.

Speaking on several other issues, Wheeler refused to project the dollar value of the FCC's upcoming spectrum auction, merely predicting the total to be "bigger than a breadbox."

He did, however, forecast a long and difficult spectrum "repacking" process for broadcasters after the auction is finished. 

"We should not overlook the fact that after the final gavel comes down, the work has just begun," Wheeler said. "It's going to be a huge challenge making sure those licensees who continue to operate continue through the revamping process … How do we deal with Aunt Minnie's TV that only gets Channel 1.0?"

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