by Baindu N. Saidu
Distribution refers to the means by which television programming is delivered to consumers. It is done through traditional means like Broadcast, Cable or Satellite television, or through newer means like Video on Demand (VOD), Digital Video Recording (DVR), and online Subscription Video On Demand (SVOD) services like HULU Plus and Netflix.
When it comes to overseeing and regulating of these different means of mass television distribution, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) is the principle government agency in charge. Its jurisdiction covers the means of mass emerging television technologies at the intersection of telephone, internet, computing, and digital signals. .
Several events have been ongoing during this semester related to the regulatory and legal aspects of distribution include a satellite provider, Dish’s disputes with both cable and broadcast networks, and the FCC’s ongoing plans for an incentive auction to reclaim spectrum space for wireless operators.
Dish Network vs. AMC Networks
The Networks’ dispute started years earlier with Cablevision’s lawsuit against Dish over their Voom HD channel which Dish stopped carrying in 2008. AMC was spun off from Cablevision in 2011. In April 2012, Dish notified AMC that it would drop their channels and by July, when their contract expired, Dish removed AMC Network channels AMC, WEtv, IFC, and Sundance from its lineup .
The companies indicated different reasons for the dispute. AMC stated that DISH dropped its programming because it wanted to gain leverage in an unrelated lawsuit involving Cablevision and their Voom HD channel . DISH, conversely stated that the dispute was over “bundling,” in which big networks like AMC try to sell several of their channels, both high- and low-rated, to providers in a bundle to get a better price .
By September, Dish’s 14 million subscribers had been without any AMC channels for more than two months and feared not be able to view the season premiere of the AMC hit show, The Walking Dead, set to premiere October 14. Speaking on the dispute, Dish’s senior vice president of programming, Adam Shull stated that “The problem is they’re asking me to pay for four channels for really what is the price of three shows,” thus Dish wouldn’t be paying for any AMC shows .
On their part, AMC turned to social media in a quest to get their channels back on Dish, launching a YouTube video contest for angry Dish subscribers called “Hey DISH, Where’s my AMC?” .
The conflict would not be resolved until October 21 when Cablevision and AMC Networks settled their lawsuit with Dish Network for $700 million. The deal brought to end a dispute over whether Dish breached an affiliate agreement by terminating AMC’s Voom HD Network in 2008. At a trial that began in late September, AMC sought some $2.4 billion in damages from what it believed was Dish’s improper termination. Dish had defended itself by saying that it had the authority to cancel the Voom deal based on a contractual clause requiring Cablevision/AMC to invest $100 million per year on the channel. As part of the deal Dish also reached a new carriage agreement with AMC, bringing the network back to their lineup along with IFC, Sundance, and WEtv .
Dish Network’s AutoHop vs. Broadcasters
Another battle Dish Network has been involved in pertains to the AutoHop feature for its DVR systems, Hopper and Joey. Introduced in March, Autohop, an International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) Innovations 2013 Design and Engineering Award Honoree, allows users who are watching Primetime Anytime recordings to completely skip commercials. When the user starts watching a recording, they are allowed to choose whether or not to skip commercials. Users who choose to skip the commercials move from segment to segment of TV shows without having to watch the ads . This feature has undoubtedly caused uproar with broadcasters, who depend on ad sales for a majority of their revenue.
In May, three of the major broadcasters (CBS, NBC, and Fox) filed suit against Dish Network in Los Angles, contending that the technology violated copyright law. Dish simultaneously filed a suit against ABC, CBS, and NBC in New York seeking a declaratory judgment affirming the legality of their technology . In documents filed August 22, Fox’s lawyer argued that AutoHop was in “violation of the express terms and conditions of its contracts with Fox and federal copyright law. Both parties argued their respective points of view in front of U.S. District Court judge, Dolly Gee, on September 21 in Los Angeles. On November 6, Gee denied Fox’s request for a preliminary injunction that would shut AutoHop down. Gee, in denying Fox said, “Although Dish defines some of the parameters of copying for time-shifting purposes, it is ultimately the user who causes the copy to be made.” She also pointed out that Fox hadn’t proved there would be “irreparable damage” if no injunction was issued. Any harm to Fox, she said, could be relieved by monetary damages. The judge did agree with Fox though that Dish had likely committed copyright infringement and broken the contract between the two companies in making copies of Fox programming for alleged quality assurance .
On November 9, Fox filed an appeal against the denial of its request for an injunction, moving the matter from the U.S. District Court to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth District. More legal action from broadcasters followed on November 24 when ABC sought a preliminary injunction from U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain in Manhattan federal court to also block AutoHop .
The broadcasters’ reason for going after AutoHop is that it “will ultimately destroy the advertiser-supported ecosystem” they depend on for revenue . The networks make more than $19 billion a year in advertising, money that pays for the high cost of programming. Without advertising, network executives say, media companies would have to charge distributors three times the current rate for their signals, added costs which would be passed on to consumers. Dish, on its part, said that it believes that the AutoHop feature does not violate the networks’ copyrights. Instead, the company said AutoHop is simply an enhancement of existing ad-zapping technologies, and ultimately a matter of consumer choice .
FCC Incentive Spectrum Auction
The FCC is a quasi-autonomous commission that has elements of each of the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government. It is part of the group of independent regulatory agencies (see also the FAA, FTC, and SEC) . In its control of television, the FCC performs several distinct functions such as rulemaking, licensing, registration, adjudication, enforcement, and informal influence .
Last February, President Obama signed a law empowering the FCC to buy spectrum from broadcasters wishing to give it up and then turn around and auction it to wireless broadband carriers. The FCC is working on the implementing rules for the incentive auction — so-called because broadcasters have a cash incentive to give up their spectrum . They have hopes that the auction could begin as early as 2014, but have until September 2022 to conduct the sale and license the airwaves to wireless companies .
For the most part, full-service broadcasters with major network affiliations and newsrooms have said they have no interest in the incentive auction, preferring to hang on to their entire spectrum so they can offer new services. However, other broadcasters that are struggling see the incentive auction as a way to recoup some or all of their investments. Speculators have also entered the market, buying up marginal stations with the intention of selling their spectrum at a profit in the FCC auction .
Fall FCC Spectrum Auction News
- September 07, 2012: FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski set to release the FCC’s framework for the spectrum auction with target of having a report and order voted by mid-2013 and the auctions completed by the end of 2014 . Full article.
- October 04, 2012: Chairman Genachowski said that the FCC will exceed its 300 MHz target for freeing up spectrum, a target the commission set in the National Broadban Plan . Full article.
- November 13, 2012: An anonymous group of broadcasters interested in selling their TV spectrum in the incentive auction created the Expanding Opportunities for Broadcasters Coalition and tapped former Fox and Disney lobbyist Preston Padden to lead their efforts before the FCC as the commission writes rules for the auction . Full article.
- December 03, 2012: FCC officials spelled out some financial options in a PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP webcast, urging listeners to file comments as the commission works to write rules for the auction. The deadline for comments on its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking was extended to Jan. 25, with reply comments due March 26 . Full article.
With the auction yet to occur, there is more news to come. To stay updated, check out the FCC’s official website.
 http://articles.latimes.com/2012/may/25/entertainment/la-et-ct-broadcast-networks-fight-with-dish-over-adskipping-has-enormous-implications-20120525; http://www.deadline.com/2012/11/fox-appeals-denied-dish-autohop-injunction/